Outside report on police chief finds most allegations unfounded

An outside investigation has largely exonerated Bainbridge Island Police Chief Jon Fehlman on claims made by members of the city's police union that the chief had violated police department and city policies and state and federal laws.

The 27-page report, issued publicly by city officials Tuesday, said most of the allegations made by the Bainbridge Island Police Guild against Fehlman could not be fully substantiated. Other claims of misdeeds showed nothing amiss.

Several allegations made by the union were found to be "partially true, but inaccurate in significant respects," wrote Rebecca Dean, a Seattle lawyer and workplace investigator who was hired by the city in June to look into the union's allegations against the city's top cop.

Fehlman could not be reached for comment Tuesday. City officials announced that he had decided to step down from the chief's post on Sept. 15.

The guild's allegations of wrongdoing followed the union's vote of "no confidence" in Fehlman in early June, and guild officials presented the city with a long list of allegations against Fehlman.

The claims date back three years, to when Fehlman took over as chief after stepping up from the deputy chief post in 2009.

Some of the allegations center on events shortly after Fehlman became chief.

The union said Fehlman had improperly purchased a Blackberry cell phone at the Kitsap Mall without going through proper channels, but Dean said she could find no conclusive evidence that an irregularity occurred.

The guild also said that Fehlman had purchased a 2009 Chevrolet Tahoe without city approval.

Dean said that evidence partially supported the guild's claim, but said there was "no persuasive evidence" that Fehlman made up a story about problems with the vehicle when it was taken back to the dealership.

Fehlman, Dean said, had also told her that former city manager Mark Dombroski "had told him to go ahead and get the vehicle."

Dean said Dombroski did not respond to a request for an interview, and that the city did not incur any direct financial loss from the purchase and return of the vehicle.

Dean also said "reliable first-hand evidence refutes the guild's accusation" that Fehlman's account that the vehicle had acceleration problems were bogus.

The union had also complained that Fehlman routinely used his police department vehicle for personal use, and that he had special confidential plates put on the vehicle.

Dean said the evidence partially supported, and partially refuted, the union's allegations.

The investigator said that former city manager Brenda Bauer had said she expected Fehlman to be "on duty" and available to respond to emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Bauer also said she expected he would use his city vehicle at all times, even when he was engaged in personal activities.

Fehlman told Dean that his personal use of his city vehicle was "incidental," because it made up less than 10 percent of his time behind the wheel.

"There is no evidence which refutes Fehlman’s assertion. The witness evidence is anecdotal, and [Guild president] Bob Day stated that the guild did not have any quantified data about Fehlman’s relative amount of personal and family use," Dean said in her report.

Guild members had also complained that Fehlman had used his emergency lights and siren in March 2011, after his son injured his neck at a wrestling tournament and was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.

Fehlman told Dean he drove to the ferry, with his wife in the vehicle, using his lights and siren and drove to the hospital once they got off the ferry.

Bauer, who was city manager and Fehlman's boss at the time, said it was OK for the chief to use his lights and siren.

"As a matter of compassion, in light of the fact that Fehlman’s son had potentially broken his neck, [Bauer] was not concerned that Fehlman used his lights and siren so he could catch a ferry and get to the hospital where his son was being treated," Dean wrote.

Fehlman also told the investigator that the guild's complaint was hypocritical, because the chief and another witness saw Day, the guild president, dropping his children off at school in his marked patrol car.

Dean said she did not investigate Fehlman's statement about Day.

"The issue is irrelevant because, at the risk of using a cliché, two wrongs do not make a right," she wrote.

Dean also found that evidence partially refuted and partially supported the union's claim that he had improperly purchased a third seat for his police vehicle.

Fehlman's 2010 Ford Exhibition had been purchased with a third seat at a cost of $744, but no one in the public works or finance departments questioned the added cost.

Fehlman, for his part, said the extra seat was needed so the vehicle could be used to transport officers to training or so he could hang equipment from the back of the third seat.

Dean, however, said the claim did "not pass the proverbial straight-face test," and she assumed the seat was needed so he could drive his family around.

Dean said the guild claim that Fehlman operated his vehicle without plates for an extended period of time.

But Dean also found no evidence to support the guild’s assertion that Fehlman used special confidential plates that could not be used on a vehicle utilized for personal purposes.

Fehlman told Dean that "he did not want to use exempt plates because it was customary for police chiefs to have unmarked vehicles without them."

"As I have not been asked to draw legal conclusions, whether operating a vehicle belonging to a governmental entity with no markings and civilian plates is consistent with statutory requirements is an issue outside the scope of this investigation," she added.

Dean said the union's claim that Fehlman received a $275 travel advance in 2009 but did not provide receipts for how the money was spent was true.

The investigator also noted it may have been an oversight.

"On Dec. 6, 2010, Fehlman executed an affidavit attesting to disposition of the travel funds," Dean wrote in her report. "Fehlman asserts that he forgot about the advance until [Fiannce Director] Ellen Schroer reminded him of it in December 2010. Given the trivial amount and the absence of any communication between March and December 2010, this may be true."

Dean said that the union's claim that Fehlman failed to report two motor vehicle collisions involving a police vehicle — which the guild said failed to comply with city and department policy and state law — "were partially true, but inaccurate in significant respects."

The first accident happened on March 26, 2011, when Fehlman damaged his bumper at the entrance to the public works yard at Hidden Cove.

Fehlman told Dean he contacted the department and former Officer Richard Christopher reported to the scene, and the account was confirmed by the shift supervisor who was on duty at the time.

Bauer, the former city manager, also said Fehlman reported the accident to her.

The cost to repair the bumper totaled $762, and Dean found that no one filled out a mandatory state traffic collision report.

In its no-confidence complaint, the guild had also chastised Fehlman for not reporting a rear-end collision that happened on March 1, 2012 while police vehicles were lining up on the tarmac at Fort Lewis for a memorial procession for a fallen officer.

Officer Victor Cienega’s patrol car was rear-ended by a large truck driven by a wildlife officer for the Port Gamble Tribal Police. The guild said Fehlman made sure that no accident investigation was done and no report was filed with the State Patrol.

Dean said the guild’s allegations "are only partially accurate."

Fehlman said he asked Cienega to document the incident and submit it to the city for insurance purposes and to obtain the information on the other vehicle.

The chief also said he did not try to contact the responsible law enforcement agency to conduct an investigation at the scene because it wasn't practical; the Fort Lewis military police would have to handle the call, and the accident occurred as vehicles were lining up for a funeral procession that was about to start.

"In effect, he assumed that the military police would simply not be interested in doing anything but getting the procession started," Dean wrote.

Dean also found that Fehlman reported the incident to Bauer on  the day the accident occurred.

Dean had the most trouble, she said, with investigating the union's claim that Fehlman was notified of potential problems with the hiring of Charlie Arntz for a reserve officer position, and that patrol officers would refuse to ride with Arntz due to his past history and behavior.

"Everyone I interviewed about this issue laid responsibility for any perceived flaws in the hiring decision at someone else’s feet," she said.

Still, she said her interviews showed that "no one in the hiring decision chain analyzed the facts underlying Arntz’s arrest history at the time the hiring decision was made."

Arntz resigned from the police force in September 2011 amid the intense media scrutiny that followed reports that he had assaulted a Bainbridge resident while coming off the ferry from Seattle in January 2008.

Dean also said the guild's accusations that police files had been found in former city manager Bauer's office after she was terminated was partially correct, "although from all reliable reports the files were consistently secured in a locked file cabinet or desk drawer."

The union's claim that Fehlman had publicly denigrated officers, however, was unfounded.

"None of the guild members I interviewed had first-hand knowledge of such comments," she said.

Dean also said evidence did not support the guild's claim that Kim Hendrickson had been improperly kept out of the Citizen's Academy "because he disagreed with her political and personal positions."

"There is no evidence that Fehlman made, or even influenced, the decision to deny Hendrickson’s application to the Citizen’s Academy," Dean said.

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