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Kidney donor appeals firing over drug test

The officer says his wife's hospital room was not the proper place for a urine test. The department says a rule is a rule.

Published July 1, 2005

James Harris takes pain medication for complications of donating a kidney to his wife on Halloween 2003.

ST. PETERSBURG - James Harris stood by his wife's hospital bed as a nurse drew her blood. Charlotte Harris had arrived minutes earlier by ambulance, saying she felt weak and dizzy.

Soon two St. Petersburg officers arrived. "My first thought was they were coming to see if my wife was okay and whether we needed anything," said Harris, a 14-year veteran of the department.

But it was the officers who needed something.

"We're here for a urine sample,"' Harris recalled one of them saying. He was being asked to take a random drug test. Now.

The officers left empty handed.

Today, Harris, a father of three who donated a kidney to his wife in 2003, is fighting for his job. He is appealing his firing, which occurred last week, accusing the department of going too far in the hospital room on May 25.

"Because I did not put the department before my wife, I'm punished," he said.

Police officials said they sympathize with Harris and acknowledged his tenure has been solid, but rules are rules. By refusing to provide a specimen, after being ordered twice at the hospital and then again later by the police chief, Harris was insubordinate.

In an interview transcript, one investigator suggests a reason for Harris' reluctance: "I believe that James is unfortunately, probably hooked on some type of narcotic, or he was hiding something."

Harris, 45, said he takes prescription pain medication for nerve problems stemming from the kidney transplant but denies using illegal substances. "It would be utterly ludicrous to risk the future of my kids or the necessity for myself or my wife to have health insurance."

St. Petersburg police officials do not recall another time in recent memory when a person refused the drug test.

* * *

On May 3, Harris' name was among 10 drawn by City Hall auditors for a random drug test.

Three weeks passed before Harris was asked for the specimen. Timing is everything, said Maj. John Thompson, head of Internal Affairs. To ensure the tests are indeed a surprise, a person can be notified at any time during the month.

For Harris, that came on May 25.

After reporting for work at noon, he said he called home to check on his wife who had complained that morning of feeling weak and lethargic. "We didn't know if it was side effects from her medication or if something was wrong with her kidney," Harris said.

Ten minutes later, a detective stopped by Harris' desk and told him he needed to check in with Internal Affairs for the drug test. He would then be escorted to Edward White Hospital to take it.

But on his way to IA, Harris told the detective he "may have to leave," alluding to his wife. By the time he got to IA, Harris had reached his wife on his cell phone. He told detectives he had to go at once.

He was told he could.

A short time later, Harris called his supervisor and said he would be out the rest of the day. The timing of his wife's emergency and the drug test was coincidence, Harris insisted to investigators.

At 2:15 p.m., acting Maj. Paul McWade and detective James Jones arrived at Harris' St. Petersburg apartment. Harris, who called 911 for his wife, had followed her to Bayfront Medical Center.

So the officers went there too. Jones recalled seeing Charlotte Harris upright in bed, talking with her husband. The officers pointed to a restroom nearby and asked Harris to give them a urine sample. Or he could give them a blood sample. A nurse approached Wade and Jones and said Charlotte Harris was upset and wanted them to leave.

"They were just hovering," Charlotte Harris, 43, said in an interview Wednesday. "I was the patient there, what about my rights?"

Despite two orders from McWade, Harris did not comply. St. Petersburg police Chief Chuck Harmon then called a police union representative and asked him to stress the importance of the test. Harmon gave Harris until 5 p.m. to supply a urine sample.

But Harris said he never recalled the union official extending that offer. Even if he had, Harris said, his wife did not leave the hospital until 7 p.m.

"They don't see the invasion of privacy. We're officers but we are human beings also. We have emergencies."

The next day, Harris was placed on administrative leave.

* * *

Charlotte Harris underwent a kidney transplant on Halloween day 2003. Her husband was the donor. The transplant was successful, but James Harris developed complications. A major nerve, he said, was severed in the operation. What was supposed to be a four-week absence from work turned into several months. Other officers donated their vacation time to Harris.

The ordeal drained the family's resources, Harris said. They gave up their home and moved into a two-bedroom apartment. He dipped into his retirement savings. "Our credit, everything is just devastated."

Harris returned to work in early 2004 and was eventually given a desk job answering telephones because of his health problems. Harris said his doctor prescribed various pain medication, including Percocet. In late March, workers at Harris' doctor's office called police to say they suspected Harris of abusing prescription drugs, sparking an internal inquiry. One of Harris' doctors later countered that, said St. Petersburg police spokesman Bill Proffitt.

The department referred Harris to an employee assistance program, which provides counseling and other services.

* * *

Thursday morning, Harris met with the police union to discuss his appeal. The union said afterward it has not taken a position.

It may not have much room to argue: the union contract states that, "Refusal to provide a urine sample will be considered insubordinate and will result in termination."

That's stricter than the department's policy, which states continued refusal of a drug test "will be considered insubordination which could result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination."

Harris said the department should consider the "extenuating circumstances" of the hospital visit.

Assistant chief of police Dave DeKay, who was part of the panel that fired Harris, said sending officers to the hospital was important because random tests must be done immediately. He said officers tried to accommodate Harris by allowing him to submit a sample at Bayfront rather than Edward White Hospital.

In the end, DeKay said the facts are all that mattered. "And the facts in this case were he didn't give us a test."

[Last modified July 1, 2005, 01:23:13]

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