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Bainbridge narrows scope of investigation into union's allegations against police chief

The investigator looking into allegations against Bainbridge Island Police Chief Jon Fehlman will not investigate claims that Fehlman gave false testimony during the Ostling civil rights case.

The probe also won't cover allegations made by union officials that are based purely on policy, including Fehlman's management of the police department, according to public records released by the city of Bainbridge Island Tuesday.

The Bainbridge Island Police Guild announced that union members had taken a vote of "no confidence" in Fehlman on June 11, and castigated Fehlman for a lack of leadership and poor morale in the department. The guild alleged that Fehlman had made poor management decisions during his three years as chief, and violated police department and city policies, and possibly state and federal laws.

Two days later, Interim City Manager Morgan Smith announced the city would bring in an outside investigator to look into the claims, and the city later hired Seattle lawyer and workplace investigator Rebecca Dean to examine the guild's allegations.

Last week, Smith sent Dean a memo that formalized the scope of the investigation.

In the July 9 memo, Smith said Dean should not investigate "allegations related to the Ostling lawsuit, which represents ongoing litigation," and "allegations related purely to policy, and for which determinations or assessments would be subjective rather than fact-based."

Smith also said the investigation would not cover Fehlman’s actions and comments in the Ostling case.

The city was sued by the Ostling family in 2011 after a Bainbridge police officer shot and killed Douglas Ostling while responding to a 911 call in October 2010, after the mentally ill man met police at his apartment door with an ax. At the close of the civil rights trial in federal court last month, a jury awarded the Ostling family $1 million and said the city had failed to properly train police officers on how to deal with the mentally ill.

Fehlman was named in the lawsuit, and the police guild has criticized Fehlman for his part in press releases that were given to the media after the shooting. The guild also complained that Fehlman released the names of the officers involved in the shooting the day after the incident, and  prevented Bainbridge police from being involved in the investigation of the Ostling shooting. The shooting was investigated by the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office.

Smith, in her memo to the Dean, said the city will use internal resources to look into the allegations made in the Ostling case.

Smith also asked Dean to limit her review of allegations the guild made that claimed Fehlman had a “lack of connection to the community.”

Dean will investigate the guild's claim that two citizens were incorrectly excluded from the Citizen’s Academy. The guild has alleged that Fehlman would not let one woman attend the academy because he disagreed with her "personal and political positions," and wouldn't let another person go on citizen ride-alongs with police.

In its complaints about Fehlman's community connections, the guild also criticized the department's logo, and claimed the chief wouldn't participate in certain community forums.

Smith told the investigator that the claims reflected "issues of policy and management" and would not be included in the investigation.

"More specifically, in the guild's June 11 letter and at various points in the addendum, the guild states that Chief Fehlman has demonstrated poor executive leadership, in that, among other things, he has provided no short-term or strategic plan for the department, has not communicated consistently or effectively with his subordinates and has isolated himself from his officers," Smith wrote.

"If [guild president] Lt. Bob Day is able to provide a factual basis for these concerns, please include this information n your report to me," Smith added. "However I will make any assessments and judgments regarding Chief Fehlman's leadership competencies. You should not interview guild members about these issues."

City officials have estimated that the investigation will take four to six weeks to complete.

Smith has told the council that Dean has said the probe will cost roughly $10,000 to $20,000.

Smith's hiring of an investigator came after some on the council privately pushed the manager to examine "police accountability" in the wake of the guild complaint and asked her to quickly hire an interim police chief, according to emails between Smith and council members obtained under a public records request.

In an email to the council on June 19, Smith said she was focusing her efforts on getting an investigator in place, as well as an interim chief, but not on the larger issue of problems in the police department.

"At this point I am not working to develop resources or a plan to address a full management study of the department, or to examine police 'accountability' issues more generally," she told council members in the email. "I believe this type of review remains an important task in order to address the department's long-term performance, but this is an undertaking that will be most successfully addressed in the future."

According to the emails, Smith told council members she would be gone for a family vacation to North Carolina from June 18 to June 29, but Mayor Debbi Lester and Councilman Dave Ward wanted quick action on the investigation of the guild's complaints and an interim chief hired.

"Ideally ... resolving the interim issue and beginning the investigation should be addressed before you leave. This should not be postponed for two weeks while you are on vacation," Lester told Smith in a June 15 email.

"Ideally, this should be done quickly - three weeks max. This should not be a long drawn-out process. Several of the issues can be looked into via public works maintenance and the finance department accounting records," Lester added.

An email from Ward to Smith a minute later on June 15 echoed Lester's concerns.

"I sincerely hope that action on the investigator and the interim chief do not wait until you return for action," Ward told Smith in his email.

"As you are aware there is a high expectation in the community for some positive action with the police department. [These] two items are very necessary and should be done as soon as possible," Ward said.

Fehlman has been away from his job as chief on personal leave since mid-May for medical reasons. He was hospitalized for pancreatitis before the start of the Ostling trial, and has been in and out of the hospital ever since.

Because of his medical condition, Fehlman has been unable to assist with the investigation of the guild's allegations, according to internal emails obtained by the Review.

Once Fehlman is able to assist with the investigation, which may not happen until later this month, he will be placed on paid administrative leave.

 

 

 

 

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