Archive for Wednesday, December 19, 2001

Police appeal disciplinary action

December 19, 2001

Not only has the disciplinary action taken against the Baldwin City Police Department been appealed, but the process as well.

City Administrator Larry Paine handed out suspensions to four members of the department on Dec. 7 and oral reprimands to two others. Police Chief Steve Butell was suspended for three days and three officers were given one-day suspensions. All disciplinary action was the result of the Bennett Investigation launched in July into allegations leveled at the department.

Appeals were to be made by 5 p.m. Dec. 12. At 4:45 p.m. on that date, the entire police force delivered a letter signed by each one appealing their individual reprimands and the grievance procedure as a whole. A seventh officer, who was not reprimanded, also signed the letter.

The city council directed Paine to suspend and reprimand members of the police force during an executive session at the Dec. 3 meeting. The council again met in executive session Monday to discuss the situation and no changes in the action were made.

Members of the police department have declined to comment individually on the action, but released a joint statement Tuesday afternoon. It read, in part:

"Due to circumstances that have prohibited our department from speaking, we wish to thank the citizens for the support that our department has received," it stated. "We feel some response is needed, however, we are not able to elaborate further due to circumstances pending.

"The officers of the Baldwin City Police Department would like to say that as a whole, we have concerns over the manner in which the disciplinary actions are being handled," it continued. "We as a department and as individuals have complied with and followed the directives given to us by the city administrator, mayor and council members. We must be allowed to function as a department under the management of Chief Butell."

The news release was a surprise to Paine. He said he was unaware of any prohibition imposed on the department on speaking.

"I think that what's in place is a directive by me that officers should not return to a process where they were communicating with members of the council without the knowledge of the police chief," said Paine. "It may be something self imposed. I certainly have not prohibited them from speaking. I can't do that."

He said the statement was not cleared by him.

"You need to have knowledge and input for a statement like that," Paine said. "These folks are acting on their own. They have not communicated this with their superiors."

He said he was working on a letter in response to the officers' claims and that was the next step in the process. The disciplinary actions are on hold while due process runs its course, he said.

"My next step is to craft a response to the officers in regard to their letter of complaint and appeal," he said, adding he doesn't know when, or if, the appeals will be heard. "The next step goes to the point that the officers will want to make individual decisions on how to deal with that.

"But, the suspensions will not be administered until after all appeals have been exhausted," he said.

Paine said he was also puzzled by the comment in the officers' statement that read "We must be allowed to function as a department under the management of Chief Butell." He said as far as he knew, Butell was still in charge.

"That's right," said Paine. "I also have to believe that Steve has the support of the majority of the council in his role as police chief."

Paine reiterated that the department was functioning properly despite the disciplinary action and protection has never, nor will it, suffer as a result. The officers also addressed the issue in their statement.

"The Baldwin City Police Department has and will continue to uphold the highest standards of performance and efficiency, maintain good working relationships among employees and provide the citizens of the city with the highest possible level of service, courtesy and protection," it stated.

The Bennett Investigation, conducted by Topeka Attorney Mark Bennett as special counsel, was initially launched after misconduct allegations were brought to the council's attention involving former officer G.H. Rhea. Rhea resigned from the department days after the probe began. The Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Kansas Highway Patrol also assisted in the investigation, which was broadened into a general review of the department and its policies and procedures.

Bennett met with the entire council in September and briefed them on his preliminary findings. At a news conference following the briefing, it was announced that the criminal allegations against the department were unfounded. However, several days later Mayor Ken Hayes held a press conference to announce that the KHP portion of the probe involving the alleged misuse of a national crime computer had not been completed. When it was finished, the department was found to have misused the computer and was suspended from using it for a month and had to go through retraining on proper use.

So far, the results of the Bennett Investigation have not been made public. Some of the summary comments from Bennett have been released, including questions into the policies and procedures and the general comment that there was a "lack of administrative control."

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