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UPDATE | Consultant: Improve police by more oversight, changes to union
An outside consultant hired by Bainbridge Island to review its police department said the department is plagued by poor first-line supervision, poor communication and split community support for the police department.
Consultant Michael Pendleton briefed city council members on his long-awaited report at their Wednesday meeting.
Pendleton also said there were long-standing unresolved allegations of police misconduct and retaliation, and said the problems in the department have been known for years, but city leaders have not solved them.
Pendleton said the city’s new police chief should help guide changes in the department, partly by establishing a leadership development strategy and creating and using a police accountability system. He also said a formal police commission made of citizens should be created that would review the internal affairs of the city’s police department.
The existing police department should also be moved inside city hall or nearby, he said.
What’s more, Pendleton also recommended removing the first-line supervisors — the department’s four lieutenants — from the union that represents police officers. Two of the lieutenants serve as the union’s president and vice president, and Pendleton’s report noted that the rank-and-file were afraid to speak up because of retaliation.
Council members welcomed the report, and asked City Manager Doug Schulze to come up with a plan to adopt the consultant’s recommendations.
Councilman Bob Scales said a shakeup in the department was needed.
“I think if we had strong leadership, we had professional behavior, and we held officers accountable for misconduct, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Scales said.
He also said the council could require the city manager to move forward with the consultant’s recommendations, and inform the council how the issues would be addressed.
“What we don’t need is a touchy-feely process. We don’t need a lot of community meetings. We need to have strong leadership and direction from the top of our management structure to clean house,” Scales said.
He asked for a formal response to the report and a plan for action, and others on the council agreed.
Councilwoman Kirsten Hytopoulos agreed that city officials have known for some time about the problems within the department. She said the report came only after years of insistence by some on the council that a review be conducted.
Given its role, she added, the council could not demand changes within the department but could only ask for a study.
“We don’t manage the police department; we can’t do anything about these things,” she said.
“Our rumors and innuendoes and so forth don’t have a lot of stock,” Hytopoulos added. “They needed to be looked into.”
Pendleton’s report painted a blunt picture at times of the existing department. He recalled interviewing members of the department, and officers had told him of low supervision and accountability and “self-orientated back stabbers.”
Officers also said there was poor leadership at the top, and there was low trust in the department.
First-line leadership — the lieutenants who also belong to the same union as the line officers — was one of the most pressing issues facing the department, Pendleton said in his report.
Officers told Pendleton the department’s first-line leaders were made up of poor role models who were slackers, unprofessional and ignored assignments.
Officers also said they were afraid to speak up.
Pendleton recalled how one of the lieutenants sent a threatening email to officers not to participate in the study, but that move was stopped by the city manager.
“I think there’s an issue here,” he said.
“I’m sorry, it’s uncomfortable, I understand that,” Pendleton quickly added.
Pendleton also said he was told that Bainbridge Island was a community of entitlement that doesn’t like authority and was “quick to lawyer up.”
The assessment of the police department was also stark from city leaders who were interviewed.
According to Pendleton’s report, city leaders said the lieutenants and the police union undermines the management of the department.
The lieutenants led the movement against the last chief, they said, and the lieutenants historically resist and don’t follow through on ways to improve accountability.
There were also no consequences for bad behavior, they said.
The perception of the police department in the community was also poor. There was a lack of trust, but some community members who were interviewed said that “80 percent of the noise comes from 3 percent of the people.”
Some community members also noted the history of the lieutenants undermining the city’s last chief.
In his findings, Pendleton said there was a discernible disconnect between leaders and supervisors, and there were no consequences for poor behavior.
Pendleton said the department could be improved by implementing a police accountability system that included both an internal affairs component and performance evaluations.
A police commission should be formed, he said, that would have a formal role in the review of officers who had been the subject of internal affairs complaints and investigations.
A specific organization development plan was also needed.
“If you do these things your police department will be a better place,” he said.
Pendleton also noted that not all was bad with the Bainbridge police department.
He said the department and its employees had many positive attributes, and some “very solid strengths.”
Those qualities, however, were “masked by chronic problems within the department.”
The consultant also told city officials that Bainbridge residents were largely happy with their department, but as people were more familiar with the department and its goings-on, negative perceptions were more common.
One cause was the negative press the department has received in recent years.
Bainbridge police have found themselves in the headlines often, largely due to the fatal police shooting of a mentally ill man in 2011 that resulted in a federal civil rights trial and a $1 million judgment against the city.
The department also found itself in bad light when an officer — the former president of the police union — was accused of trailing a city councilwoman after a city council meeting and then blogging about her on a newspaper website.
More recently, the police department generated a constant stream of media attention after the union took a vote of “no confidence” in former chief Jon Fehlman.
Union officials accused Fehlman of breaking state law and poor leadership, and the chief was subject to an outside investigation into the union’s claims. The allegations were found to be largely unsupported, but Fehlman resigned after the investigation was complete last September.
Fehlman’s second-in-command also stepped down after union members accused her of gender bias.
Another investigation ensued and could not substantiated the allegations, and the commander also resigned after the close of the investigation.
The comprehensive look inside the department was conducted by the Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs, and the review found incidents of insubordination within the ranks of officers and a lack of leadership in the department.
Police Chief Matthew Hamner, who recently joined the department, told the city council that many of the recommendations made in the report by the police chiefs’ study had been implemented, and work would continue on the remaining suggestions that had not yet been adopted.