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City warning to police union boss: Threatening email violated police officers' rights under state whistleblower law

Bainbridge Police Lt. Bob Day was warned against threatening his fellow police department employees after city officials learned he had sent an email to other officers that said they shouldn't talk about problems in the department with higher-ups.

Day's email was improper, top city officials said, because it threatened Bainbridge officers with retaliation if they exercised their rights under the state's Whistleblower Protection Act.

City officials learned about the email after an outside review of the department — long the subject of allegations of police misconduct and retaliation — was launched earlier this year.

Michael Pendleton, the consultant hired by the city to examine the police department from the inside out, told the city council during his briefing on his report earlier this month about the email. He said a supervisor, whom he did not name, had sent an email to officers that many thought was intimidating and meant to stifle the officers' participation in the study.

As reported earlier, a public records request by the Bainbridge Review found that Day had been the author of the message to subordinates.

Day, one of four first-line supervisors in the police department and the president of the city's police union, sent the email to other officers on March 8, just a few days before Pendleton was to begin his interviews with officers to talk about troubles within the embattled department.

In the email, Day warned other officers about going directly to the top with any police issues.

He wrote: "Here is the deal, please respect the chain of command, e.g. give your direct supervisor a chance to work a problem/question/situation before going to the boss with it. By going to the boss it makes everyone look bad, it is bad for morale, and is a very bad way of doing business. If you are doing this; stop now - this is the only warning you will get."

Day has not responded to repeated requests for comment from the Review.

Records released by the city this week show top officials scolded Day over the email after officers has started to sit down for one-on-one interviews with Pendleton.

Police officer interviews started on March 21, according to invoices for the police study submitted by Pendleton, and restarted on April 2.

Also on April 2, City Manager Doug Schulze and Interim Public Safety Director Larry Dickerson sent Day a four-page memo outlining their concerns on Day's message to his subordinate officers, which was titled "Open Doors and Chain of Command."

Schulze and Dickerson told Day in blunt terms that he was off base with his memo to other officers.

"While we generally support the use of the chain of command, it is important and required, that all employees of the city of Bainbridge Island have access to communicate directly with Human Resources, their department director or the city manager. Furthermore, the memorandum you authored very clearly threatens an employee with retaliation if an employee exercises his/her rights under the Local Government Employee Whistleblower Protection Act," Schulze and Dickerson wrote in the memo to Day.

"The tone of the memorandum you authored is entirely unacceptable," wrote Schulze and Dickerson.

"Employees of the city of Bainbridge Island are encouraged to have conversations with department directors and the city manager. As a supervisor, it is your responsibility to create a level of trust and respect, which will build an environment where employees are comfortable coming to you first. Threatening employees who may not feel comfortable having a conversation with you is an unlikely method for building trust and respect," the memo states. "When an employee 'goes to the boss' it is highly probable that the employee will be asked if he/she has talked with his/her supervisor."

In the memo, Day was told to take "corrective action" so make sure his subordinates "clearly understand that there will be no retaliation if an employee exercises his/her legal right to speak with a superior officer or the city manager about a concern."

Schulze and Dickerson also told Day to make himself familiar with the handbook covering city employees and other policies governing employee misconduct.

"The memorandum you authored suggests that you are not familiar with the City of Bainbridge Island Handbook. You are encouraged to take time to read the handbook and become well-versed in the topics covered. Specifically, Section 2.01 — Reporting Improper Government Action (Whistleblower Policy). In addition, the Police Department General Orders Manual, Section 07.510, clearly authorized an employee to report misconduct to their supervisor or superior officer."

Pendleton, the consultant hired by the city in November to conduct a review of the department, issued his report on Aug. 7.

The review was highly critical of the department. And while Pendleton found the department does have "very solid strengths" — such as excellent general policing and investigation skills, a high level of experience among officers and an undercurrent of optimism and dedication — those attributes were "masked by chronic problems within the department."

Specifically, Pendleton said that officers told him there was poor communication between the chief and officers, split support for the department within the Bainbridge community, longstanding problems that have been known to city leaders but have not been resolved, and ongoing allegations of police misconduct and retaliation.

The work of the lieutenants, the four officers who serve as the department's first-line leaders, were identified as one of the most pressing issues facing the department.

Officers said the lieutenants were poor role models and were unprofessional slackers who ignored assignments. There were also micro-managers who pursued their own agenda.

Officers also noted that the police union was run by two lieutenants who serve as the president and vice president of the guild, which made officers afraid to speak up or file complaints because of the fear of retaliation.

The negative impression of the lieutenants also stretched to others in city leadership positions who were interviewed, who said the lieutenants had led the movement to oust the last police chief and have resisted attempts to improve police accountability.

In his report, Pendleton presented an extensive set of recommendations to improve leadership, accountability, community relations and employee performance.

He asked the city to plan for removing the lieutenants from the union that represents the rank-and-file officers, develop individual performance plans for the lieutenants, and create a police accountability system that would include assigning non-union personnel to investigations involving officers or citizen complaints.

Pendleton also asked the city to develop a formal police commission of Bainbridge citizens that would have a formal role in reviewing officer discipline.

Schulze, Bainbridge's city manager, has since announced that he will develop an action plan to instigate the recommendations with the help of new Police Chief Matthew Hamner.

 

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