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City disciplines two officers
Two Bainbridge Island police officers received disciplinary action in the wake of separate investigations that have resulted in one officer's suspension and another resigning.
Police Officer Scott Weiss, president of the Bainbridge Island Police Guild, has filed a grievance of his current suspension of 160 work hours without pay after an investigation revealed he was involved in surveillance of a City Council member "for personal reasons." The suspension does not affect his current standing as the president of the police guild.
In a separate action, Police Officer Michelle Vollmer, the guild's secretary, resigned in lieu of termination after an investigation pertaining to her "surreptitiously recording" a meeting between City Manager Brenda Bauer and members of the police guild.
"We believe we have a very good police force … they work hard," Bauer said. "If there are people who make mistakes they will be held accountable. If there are people who aren't a good fit, there will be consequences."
Weiss was alleged to have followed and "surveilled" Councilor Kim Brackett after a council meeting. According to the notice of discipline memorandum issued to Weiss by Bauer and Police Chief Jon Fehlman, the allegation was found to be sustained and he was suspended from Nov. 9 to Dec. 2.
The action was based on information brought forth during an investigation by the Washington State Patrol Investigative Services Bureau — an investigation that was held at the request of Fehlman.
Fehlman said he overheard Brackett’s allegations last February during a council meeting, and again during conversations outside the council chambers, and was personally prompted to request the investigation by WSP.
On Oct. 12, 2010, the council held an executive meeting that dealt with the city’s budget, and included councilors Brackett and Bill Knobloch, and Weiss, who attended in the interest of the police guild.
Knobloch had invited Brackett to his home for tea with his wife after the meeting. On her way to Knobloch’s home, Brackett noticed Officer Weiss in his patrol car in the City Hall parking lot as she exited. She told investigators that he remained behind her car as she drove along Winslow Way toward State Route 305, where traffic from a ferry had just been released. She lost track of Weiss at that point.
Later that week, an online comment posted on a Bainbridge Island Review article (“City cuts service groups’ funding out of budget,” Oct. 14, 2010) under the pseudonym “Hunter,” detailed Brackett’s location on the night of Oct. 12, including: “…Kim Brackett went straight to Bill Knobloch’s house after the council meeting. No doubt to commiserate and plan the attack to try & sway or undo the council decisions.”
During the investigation it was discovered that “Hunter” is Weiss, who admitted to using the alias when making online comments. As “Hunter,” Weiss had been commenting on a number of online articles, many regarding criticism of the city.
Weiss told investigators he knew Brackett’s location because he patrolled the neighborhood where Knobloch lives later while on duty, and noticed her car. He denied following her to the residence directly after the council meeting.
The investigation took into account police records indicating the whereabouts of Officer Weiss and concluded that the only time he could have patrolled Knobloch’s neighborhood was immediately after the meeting when Brackett was driving there. The notice of discipline states that this conclusion was consistent with the police officer’s online comment claiming knowledge that Brackett went “straight” to Knobloch’s home after the meeting.
“Because of the powers that we grant to police officers, we hold them to a very high standard of conduct,” Bauer said. “And generally, Bainbridge Island police officers perform to that high standard. In cases where that is not true, as with any employee, we will hold the employee accountable.”
The issue of Weiss commenting online under the alias “Hunter” was included in the investigation due to allegations that they may have constituted harassment.
“I think he’s harassing me…” Bracket told investigators. “…primarily through the blogs.”
Investigators found no direct or indirect contact between Brackett and Weiss, and concluded that they did not find any blog posts that could be considered threatening.
The investigation was concluded on June 8, after which the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office declined to prosecute the case, concluding that Weiss’ actions did not constitute criminal activity. The WSP then ran a second investigation which looked into whether Weiss’ actions violated the police’s cannon of ethics and the General Orders Manual.
Based on WSP’s report, the city's disciplinary notice stated Weiss violated four standards of the Bainbridge Island Police General Orders Manual Canon of Ethics, as well as being cited for violating standing orders regarding unbecoming conduct, violation of rules and courtesy, of the general orders manual.
Fehlman said Weiss, who has not responded to email and phone requests from the Review, has filed a grievance to the disciplinary action through the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the guild.
Fehlman will have 10 days after receiving Weiss’ written grievance to conduct a meeting on the matter and then 15 days after that to make a decision.
Officer Vollmer resigned in lieu of termination on Nov. 7, a day before her disciplinary hearing.
The incident that resulted in her resignation stems from a meeting on Sept. 12 in Bauer’s office with Weiss, guild treasurer Mo Stich and Vollmer, the guild’s secretary. The meeting’s purpose was to address a press release from the city containing statements the guild felt were possibly inaccurate and did not favorably reflect upon the organization, according to Stich’s testimony to investigators.
After the meeting, Vollmer revealed to Weiss and Stich that she had used a tape-recorder during the meeting and planned to use the tape when typing up a summary of the meeting for the guild. Weiss and Stich informed Vollmer that despite the intent for personal use, all parties must be aware of the recording and her actions were therefore illegal.
Washington law requires that all parties are aware and consent to any recording private communications including private conversations or meetings such as between the guild and the city manager.
The three officers informed Chief Fehlman the following day, who in turn reported the incident to Bauer. Vollmer was immediately placed on administrative leave while an investigation was conducted by the Lynnwood Police Department.
“There’s a violation of law on the outside, but whether there was intent to break the law, I do not believe so,” Stich said in her testimony to investigators. “I really don’t believe there was an intent there to break the law.”
A report of the investigation was turned over to the Kitsap County Prosecutor’s Office, which declined to prosecute the case after finding that there was insufficient evidence to prove a criminal act beyond a reasonable doubt.
Due to her role as a victim in the situation, Bauer was not involved with the disciplinary action toward Vollmer. Deputy City Manager Morgan Smith and Chief Fehlman tended to the investigation and course of discipline.
“There are some very talented, kind hardworking officers in the police department,” Bauer said. “In addition we will hold people accountable.”