S.C. town’s vote clears way for fired lesbian police chief to return

Crystal Moore was abruptly fired as the police chief of tiny Latta, S.C.
(David Zucchino / Los Angeles Times)

A tiny town in South Carolina has given its fired police chief a chance to get her job back two months after the chief and her supporters said she was dismissed because she’s a lesbian.

Residents of Latta, S.C., voted 328 to 147 Tuesday night to authorize a change in the town’s form of government that would allow the city council to reinstate Crystal Moore as police chief. The council gave Moore a 6-0 vote of confidence in April.

The town of 1,350 rallied behind Moore, 42, who had served 23 years on the force, after Mayor Earl Bullard abruptly fired her April 15. Moore, who lives in Latta with her partner and came out as a lesbian years ago, said she was fired because she was openly gay.


But Bullard threw up a roadblock Wednesday morning, announcing in a news release that he had signed a man in nearby Florence, S.C., to a two-year contract as Latta’s police chief, effective July 1.

Moore said Wednesday that she was “ecstatic and ready to go back to work” after the vote Tuesday night. But after she heard Wednesday morning about the mayor’s new hire, she said, “I was just crushed, frustrated, angry, about ready to cry.’’

“It’s nothing but retaliation,’’ she said.

The new hire sets up a showdown between the council and mayor. Council member Jarett Taylor said the mayor is required to seek council approval before making a hire.

“Nobody knew anything about it,’’ Taylor said. “He didn’t inform the council or the police department.’’

Wil Brown, a Latta native who organized a support group for Moore, said the issue will be moot once the council votes to approve Tuesday’s vote to change town government from “mayor strong’’ to “council strong.’’ That would strip the mayor of hiring authority, he said.

Bullard did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday. He told TV station WPDE in Florence that he hired the new chief, Freddie Brown, on Monday so that the town could move forward.

“We can’t dwell on what happened in the past,’’ Bullard told the station. “We need someone permanently with enough leadership and experience and capabilities to continue to bring this town forward.’’

Some voters celebrated downtown Tuesday night after results were announced, Brown said, but Moore’s supporters were bewildered Wednesday. The council cannot take action until Tuesday’s vote is certified by a county elections board, either Thursday or Friday, Taylor said.

The mayor also has a vote, but Taylor said the six-member council is unanimous in wanting to hire Moore back under a new form of government.

The mayor, who was recorded making homophobic statements in March, has said he fired Moore because she failed to maintain order and questioned authority. Moore denied that, saying she had a spotless record as police chief.

In April, Taylor released audiotapes of a March 13 phone conversation in which Bullard erupted on a rant against homosexuals.

“I would much rather have – and I will say this to anybody’s face – somebody who drank and drank too much taking care of my child than I had somebody whose lifestyle is questionable,’’ the mayor said on the tape.

He added: “I’m not going to let two women stand up there and hold hands and let my child be aware of it.’’

Bullard later said Moore’s sexual orientation had nothing to do with his decision to fire her.

Wil Brown, who said his website Stand With Chief Crystal Moore has raised nearly $6,000 for Moore along with an additional $1,000 in mail donations, called the mayor’s hire “the last gasp of a petty man.’’

The reaction to Moore’s firing demonstrated how swiftly attitudes toward gays are shifting, even in a rock-solid Republican town in the Bible Belt South.

“Crystal’s sexuality has never even been talked about; nobody cares,’’ said Janette W. Dupree, Latta’s municipal judge. “We see her as just Crystal. She’s loved and respected, and she’s very, very good at her job.’’