Archive for Wednesday, March 27, 2002

Potential police lawsuits bring responses

March 27, 2002

Talk of the town this past week has centered around the threat of a $1.2 million lawsuit against the city, which four members of the Baldwin City Police Department have said will happen as a result of the treatment they received as a result of disciplinary action taken against them.

Public sentiment has been one of shock and outrage that the investigation into the department this past summer has resulted in the threatened lawsuits. But, those same members of the public are leery to speak on the record.

That's not the case for the two sides involved in the dispute the four officers and city officials. Both sides have offered clarification about the information revealed last week when the notice of complaints, the precursor to lawsuits, were filed with the city.

Cpl. Bill Dempsey and officers Eric Garcia and Chuck Woolsencroft have filed the complaints seeking $300,000 a piece. The fourth officer, Chuck Hensley, is expected to file his sometime this week, according to Dempsey. The complaints list violations of first (freedom of speech) and 14th (due process) amendment rights.

Included in the complaints were transcripts of a tape recorded conversation between Dempsey and Mayor Ken Hayes. Hayes did not know the phone call was being taped. Public sentiment has been especially harsh about the tape, both it being done and what was said (see transcript, page A-4).

Dempsey says he was torn about making the tape, but felt he had to protect himself and the other officers from Hayes. He also takes exception to the public's perception that the suits seek $300,000, when only $150 in pay was lost as a result of the one-day suspension he and Woolsencroft received.

"Everybody's lost something here," said Dempsey. "Relationships were lost. The reputation of our department has to be rebuilt. You have to ask people to have faith.

"This is not about $150. This is about eight months of hell that we've gone through," he said. "This is our reputation."

Likewise, city officials and especially city council members have taken exception to the portrayal of the discipline given to the officers as being "political decisions," which Hayes is quoted in the tape as saying.

"I can tell you that during the four-and-a-half hours we spent in executive session (determining the discipline) that politics never entered into what we were doing," said George McCrary, council member and chairman of the public safety committee. "We were wanting to do the right thing. We never considered how it would look politically.

"We made decisions based on the facts we had," McCrary said. "It was not politically motivated."

Hayes, who has apologized for the taped comments which he termed "embarrassing," says the "political decision" comment and his statements about removing Police Chief Steve Butell from office, have been misinterpreted. He has been accused of having a personal vendetta against Butell.

"It's not a vendetta, it's a lack of administrative control," Hayes said in reference to the only finding from the Bennett Report, part of the summer investigation, which has been revealed. "I don't have a vendetta. I don't have anything personal against Steve. This is all about job performance. We expend a large amount of money on our police department and it is my expectation that we get quality police work for that money.

"As far as what I said about 'political decision,' all decisions that include more than one person are political," he said. "I meant that in the larger sense of the word."

As the job of sifting through the filed paperwork, transcripts and comments from both sides continue, one of the bigger discrepancies is the action or inaction taken by Butell concerning former officer G.H. Rhea, who was at the heart of the entire police controversy. According to Dempsey, he and other officers warned the chief about erratic behavior displayed by Rhea. When apparently nothing was done to correct the situation, Dempsey and Woolsencroft first went to council members about the situation, who in turn brought the matter to the attention of City Administrator Larry Paine and City Attorney Bob Bezek.

That's what launched the investigation into the department, which included the Kansas Highway Patrol, Kansas Bureau of Investigation and Special Counsel Robert Bennett, who compiled the Bennett Report. None of the allegations made against Rhea, who resigned days after the investigation was started, were ever revealed publicly, other than the finding that an infraction was made in conducting a Triple I investigation. That resulted in the police department being suspended for a month from the national crime computer while the officers received retraining.

"Steve and Colleen (Sgt. Colleen Larson) weren't dead set against us," Dempsey said of the concerns about Rhea brought to them. "But when you come to them every day about it, it becomes a thorn in their side. Steve said he went to Larry (Paine) with it. My big thing is I took it to the chief and Colleen. That was my job."

Garcia agreed and added that there wasn't anything being done about Rhea and that's why the officers decided to go to the council.

"We as officers weren't aware of any disciplinary action taken against him," said Garcia. "The concerns were brought to the chief because of the concern for the public."

Butell has declined to comment throughout the entire process.

Paine says he wasn't made aware of the allegations against Rhea until a June 27 meeting with Hayes, councilman Ken Wagner, Dempsey and Bezek.

"That's the truth," said Paine. "I was aware of one issue related to (Rhea's) medical situation. Other than that, I had no knowledge of the situation that they're alleging until Ken and Ken came to see me."

Another difference of opinion exists between Dempsey and Paine concerning their Jan. 9 meeting prior to disciplinary discussions conducted that night before the entire city council. Dempsey says he told Paine about the tape and that if the discipline "went away" there would be no further action. Paine says Dempsey said that and that the tape would "go away."

"When I was talking with Larry Jan. 9 about violation of rights, that tape was never a part of the negotiations," said Dempsey. "What I said was I wanted someone in the community to listen to it. What would go away was any of us taking action. The tape was never part of that. Bottom line is the stuff on the tape merely supported what we're saying. We didn't do anything wrong."

That's not how Paine recalls the conversation.

"That's certainly the implication he gave me," Paine said of making the tape go away. "He basically said 'I've got the goods on one of your elected officials and if you make this go away, this will go away.' If he wants to dispute that, that's where we're at."

Another bit of misinformation Paine wanted to clarify involves the Bennett Report. Chances of it being used in the defense of the officer's lawsuit are slim.

"It probably won't be released soon," said Paine. "It may find its way to the light of day when litigation is finished. Those reasons are even more apparent today than when the report was complete because of all the interaction of all the parties being interviewed.

"The Bennett Report honed us in on management issues, which was the some thing the consultant did," he said in reference to consultants brought in to meet with the entire police department. "The relationship between the Bennett Report and these lawsuits don't have a tie. The issues that were being interviewed over were not issues which they were disciplined for. If it were made public, it wouldn't help resolve the issues that are before us with the lawsuits."

Another concern of the officers is the effect the disciplinary action will have on their careers. Garcia, who received a written reprimand, says the fallout from the investigation has made it difficult in Baldwin and also difficult to find new jobs.

"It's still affecting us," said Garcia. "I like this community. I've worked here for three years. It makes it tougher to do our job, especially from the older crowd.

"It's affecting our whole career," he said. "It will hinder us in going anywhere else."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.