Former KPD Lt. Ralph Cline repeatedly disciplined for improper conduct early in career

Ralph Cline, Former Kingsport Police Department Lieutenant (Source: Sullivan County Sheriff's Office)

KINGSPORT, TN (WJHL) – More than 30 years before a Kingsport police lieutenant pleaded guilty to patronizing prostitution on the job, he received his first of many inappropriate conduct complaints, according to disciplinary records in his personnel file.

Documents show the Kingsport Police Department disciplined Ralph Cline multiple times over a five-year period long before an undercover camera caught him in an unmarked cruiser with a prostitute earlier this month. At one point, a former chief even took away his patrol car after what he called “a pattern of improper conduct,” according to the files.

We don’t know the specifics of three of the complaints, because those disciplinary files are not in Cline’s personnel file, but based on the remaining documents, we know KPD gave Cline multiple opportunities to turn around his behavior early in his career and even urged him to seek counseling at one point.

KPD received the first complaint in 1985 and another in 1988, which resulted in a written reprimand, according to Cline’s records.

His personnel file shows another reprimand in May 1992 after a woman complained of visits and phone calls to her home while Cline was on duty, “making an effort to arrange meetings” on his off-duty time. As a result of the substantiated internal investigation, Cline assured the then-chief he “corrected this problem and it will not occur in the future,” according to public records.

Seven months later, records show he received a fourth allegation at which time the chief counseled him in the presence of his supervisor and advised Cline “to come into compliance with the policies and procedures and to cease inappropriate conduct while on duty.”

On August 25, 1993, Cline received a fifth complaint that while in uniform and in a marked patrol car he visited with a woman at Cloud Apartments and kissed her.

“My concern is that you have a continued pattern since being employed with the Kingsport Police Department of engaging in similar conduct and you have been counseled orally and by written memo that this conduct must cease,” Chief James Keesling said at the time. “…In reviewing all the facts surrounding all of the internal investigations, I feel that a pattern of improper conduct continues to exist and you continue to ignore oral or written reprimands.”

As a result of that fifth complaint, the chief suspended Cline for two days without pay, placed him on probation for six months, removed his personalized police vehicle from his custody and encouraged him to “seek counseling.”

For the next 24 years, his file shows no documented similar behavior until he applied for early retirement on November 2, 2017. TBI agents caught him patronizing prostitution on November 1, according to Sullivan County District Attorney Barry Staubus.

While KPD has declined to talk about the case on-camera, in a statement, the chief previously said the now closed criminal investigation followed the agency self-reporting an unverified tip to the district attorney.

We asked KPD and the City of Kingsport why three disciplinary documents are not in Cline’s file. Neither could give us a conclusive answer.

“The fact that they weren’t in either his file at KPD or his file at HR leads me to believe that they were for whatever reason (inadvertently or otherwise) never placed in the files to begin with rather than the alternate, but far less likely, theory that they were there at one point and then later removed,” KPD Public Information Officer Tom Patton said. “It is important to realize that these incidents occurred between 24 and 32 years ago. Nobody who would have been in a position of authority over those files at the time is still employed by the City and some are even deceased. All of the people now in a position of authority over those files were either rookie/junior employees at the time or not yet even employed here at all.”

Policy allows employees to request in writing to the HR director to have disciplinary documents removed from their file after three years of successful completion of any corrective action, according to the city. A human resources representative said to the department’s knowledge, no one requested removal of disciplinary actions from Cline’s file.

Cline’s most recent documented disciplinary action came in May 2011 for unprofessional conduct, according to documents in his personnel file. The former chief suspended him for five days and made him apologize to multiple co-workers after records and other employees complained about angry and intimidating behavior.

Copyright WJHL 2017. All rights reserved.

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