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Former Columbia police captain, 911 director reflects on lawsuit

Former Columbia police captain, 911...

COLUMBIA, Mo. - With her lawsuit over wrongful termination settled with the City of Columbia, Zim Schwartze hopes her story helps Columbia get back on the right path.

"It was never about the money," Schwartze told ABC 17 News on Friday. "It was about showing what they had done, how they had treated someone, and the manner which they did it."

The 20-year veteran of the Columbia Police Department spoke with ABC 17 about the turmoil surrounding her job for the first time since she filed her lawsuit in 2014. Schwartze settled the matter with the city in November for $325,000, receiving $200,000 of that. An open records request made by ABC 17 News shows Columbia spent $143,467 on legal help in the lawsuit, bringing the total spent on the issue to $468,467.

Schwartze now works as the Greene County/Springfield 911 Center Director. The Missouri 911 Directors Association awarded her top owners earlier this year. But Schwartze opened up about her struggle to uproot her life in mid-Missouri when she left, and the balancing act of staying silent while trying to clear her name after the fallout with the City of Columbia.

"I did everything the city ever asked me to do," she said. "Go to community meetings, be involved, represent the police department, step over to 911, do emergency management...and I couldn't believe it. I could not believe I was being put in this position. I felt like a hostage in that office."

Through a spokesman, City Manager Mike Matthes and Police Chief Ken Burton, both former parties to the lawsuit, declined to comment.

Schwartze served in nearly every part of the police department when she started in the 1990s. She moved through the community aide position, served on the SWAT unit, and eventually became the first female to hold the rank of captain. She was a D.A.R.E. officer and formed the Community Action Team, which worked closely with at-risk neighborhoods and people to deter them from crime.

"Just the diversity of this entire community, it's a lot of fun," she said. "That's what officers are there to do, is obviously serve our customers, which just happens to be the community."

Schwartze took over the 911 center, then managed by the city, in 2009. Former city manager Bill Watkins asked her to take it over, temporarily, as they searched for a permanent director to deal with low morale issues. However, after interviewing four candidates, the panel assembled to make the hire, decided Schwartze was the best fit.

Schwartze, though, was just a few years from the 20-year mark at CPD, which would qualify her to collect a pension from the city for life. She and her husband, a fellow Columbia police officer, had made long-term plans in the city, dependent that both would receive a pension. They built a new home and intended to stay nearby to take care of their parents. So Watkins and her agreed that she could stay at CPD as a captain, and signed a one-page document to make it official.

Matthes took over as city manager in 2011. Schwartze said she had a few conversations about her unique job situation, and made sure to bring it up every time they met. In early 2012, Matthes broke the news that he would be eliminating the 911 director job, for what he called budgetary reasons. Schwartze, though, still disagrees with that reason. He offered her another job within the city, where she would help recruit businesses to downtown Columbia in anticipation of the University of Missouri's move to the Southeastern Conference. Schwartze new little to nothing about the job, and she claimed other city employees had no idea what Matthes was talking about when describing this new position.

On May 9, Schwartze said, Matthes gave her two options - retire from her position or be fired.

"At that point, it was about twenty after three [in the afternoon]," she said. "I clearly remember this day. And he said I had until about four o'clock to make this decision."

Schwartze eventually walked out of City Hall, alongside her attorney, without making a decision. She had attended numerous retirement parties for coworkers at the police department, an option they were afforded time to reflect upon. Schwartze would receive no party, no acknowledgment of service. Instead, when she arrived at the police department to retrieve her things, she was locked out, a police officer waiting to escort her back out.

Matthes and Burton argued they had every legal right to fire Schwartze. She was an at-will employee as the head of the 911 center, but did have some protections as a police captain. Burton accused her of "stonewalling" in 2012, after Matthes had told her he was getting rid of her 911 job and asking about her police captain position. Judge Nanette Laughrey refused to dismiss due process violation claims, involving that May 9 meeting in particular, which an appeals court upheld.

Schwartze, who now receives her pension from the city, said she feels bad for many of the employees at the city. There are some former employees still fighting for the jobs, such as Rob Sanders, who is also suing Burton and Matthes for wrongful termination at the police department. Schwartze said she appreciates the support people in Columbia have given her, and will make herself available to city leaders to talk further about what happened to her.

"I am more than willing to sit down with Mayor [Brian] Treece," Schwartze said. "I will sit down with any council member, and I will talk with them about anything that they have questions about."

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