KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — A Knoxville Police Department lieutenant who was fired last year could soon return to the force after a civil hearing officer ruled that his termination was not justified.

Lt. Lance Earlywine

Following a three-day hearing, Knoxville Civil Service Merit Board hearing officer Celeste Herbert granted Lance Earlywine’s request for reinstatement to his rank of lieutenant but said he could face disciplinary action for a different rule violation.

Earlywine was fired last year after internal investigators ruled he was untruthful during a 2020 probe into reports of racist comments by a subordinate officer. It also ruled he failed to properly report harassment complaints in response to reports that the officer made racist comments and created a hostile work environment.

In 2020, officers reported that Officer Adam Broome had created a hostile work environment and had made racist comments to Officer Diondré Jackson, who is Black.

Earlywine told investigators he had only been informed of allegations that Broome had created a hostile work environment and denied being told about racist comments. Broome resigned in July 2020. Sgt. Nick Lockmiller was issued a one-day suspension for failing to take action regarding the hostile workplace allegations.

A new Internal Affairs investigation was opened in 2021 to investigate if Earlywine, Captain Don Jones and Deputy Chief Kenny Miller were untruthful in sworn statements they gave during the original investigation.

Earlywine again denied being told about racist comments. Four officers told investigators that they informed him both of the comments and the hostile work environment.

The 2021 investigation ruled that Earlywine violated the department’s truthfulness policy. Jones and Miller were not found to have violated the rule but Jones was issued a temporary suspension for failing to follow proper procedure on notifications following a harassment complaint.

Miller retired in January 2022 after 30 years in law enforcement.

The hearing officer determined that Earlywine was not willfully untruthful, noting in both the 2020 and 2021 investigation interviews that he consistently expressed difficulty remembering the specific discussions and events with the involved officers from June 2019.

“Firing an officer for having a poor memory of racial remarks that he never heard verbatim and were reported to him months after they were made is neither just or good,” Herbert wrote in her decision.

Earlywine could face discipline for admitting to violating the KPD code of conduct by not properly reporting the conduct of Broome.

“Mr. Earlywine is very appreciative of the ruling of the Civil Service Board,” his attorney Charles Burks said in a statement. “He looks forward to returning as Lieutenant at Knoxville Police Department and looks forward to moving on and serving the public.”

His dismissal was one of the first major disciplinary decisions made by Police Chief Paul Noel, who was appointed in June 2022.

“The incident at the center of this appeal dates back to 2020 and had been dragging on for well over two years without any resolution by the time I was appointed as Chief of Police. The internal investigation was also conducted and completed before my tenure as Chief, and I had to make a decision based solely on the findings of that investigation. I stand by my decision and the reasoning that guided my decision. We will move forward, and this will not deter our efforts to continue to improve our department.”

Statement from KPD Chief Paul Noel