An Owensboro Police Department officer has been placed on unpaid suspension after admitting to sending racially charged text messages to a former girlfriend.

Officer Steven Phillips, who has been with OPD since 2016, was suspended for 26 days, beginning July 3, for using racist language in text messages he sent his ex-girlfriend, according to the complaint Police Chief Art Ealum opened against Phillips in May.

Phillips, who is white, is one of the department's K-9 officers. The allegations were investigated by the department's professional standards unit, and Phillips signed a document accepting his suspension on June 28. The complaint and document outlining the suspension were obtained through an open records law request. The actual messages, which were described as "racist texts," were not provided in the records.

Ealum said Phillips reported the text messages himself and also provided a letter from his ex-girlfriend's attorney about the messages. The investigation looked into the text messages and also into Phillips' history with the department, Ealum said.

There was nothing in Phillips' history that suggested a racial disparity in the people he was arresting, Ealum said.

"Nor did I have any complaints" of Phillips making racist comments in the community, Ealum said. "He has been with us three years, and I haven't had any complaints. He hasn't acted that way while on duty."

Because Phillips is a K-9 officer, the department is required to train Phillips and his dog 16 hours a month to maintain professional certification.

Phillips will be allowed to train, and will be paid, for two days during his suspension. Phillips will also be paid for one hour for each day of his suspension, because one hour per shift is dedicated to mandatory maintenance of his police dog, Ealum said.

Ealum, who is African-American, said determining the appropriate discipline was difficult, and that he consulted with other chiefs before deciding on the 26-day suspension.

"I consulted with people I have a great deal of respect for across the country," Ealum said. "Some recommended it be a written reprimand, because it's something that happened off-duty. Some recommended termination."

In cases of officers using racial slurs at other departments, the decision to fire the officer has often been overturned on appeal, Ealum said.

"It's tough. You have to take personal feelings out of the equation," Ealum said. "You have to be fair as you possibly can." The suspension was approved by the city's personnel director, Ealum said.

Of the suspension, Ealum said, "I think it was in the best interest of officer Phillips, and the organization and the community. I think it was a fair and just punishment.

"I struggled with it," Ealum said. "Obviously, I don't agree with the way things went down, but I'd say, to (Phillips') credit, OPD wouldn't have known of that situation if he had not self-reported."

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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