Archive for Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Let’s put the police mess behind us

January 22, 2003

It finally happened. The long-talked-about lawsuits were filed by three current Baldwin Police officers and a former officer against the city alleging First and 14th Amendment violations.

So starts yet another chapter in the saga of the Baldwin City Poli ce Department. It's too bad. The police department issue had once again faded into the memories of everyone.

But like so many times during the two-year time frame since this whole mess started, boom, it's been rekindled. The officers' attorney, Dennis Ha wver, had said during the summer that the lawsuits would be filed in September. It didn't happen and I, like so many others, hoped that it would just fade away.

That hope became even stronger with the hiring of new Police Chief Mike McKenna. It looked li ke there truly would be a new beginning and we could all look forward to a solidified police department from here on out.

But, no, that's not going to happen for awhile ... again. The lawsuits again cloud the horizon and have the potential to again bring all the dirty laundry and what-not from the previous police department back up.

I just couldn't believe it when I heard about the lawsuits. I think City Administrator Larry Paine probably said it best when I first talked to him about it. He was disappoi nted. That's me, too. I thought we had finally crawled out of that hole. Now we're back in it.

I also agreed with what Hawver said about it, too. It's a shame it's had to come to this. Yes, it is a shame. It's a shame that attorneys ever had to get invol ved. It takes a trip back in the "way-back machine" to recall what all this is about. And, believe me, even that trip doesn't make it make any more sense.

It all started with officers being concerned about former officer G.H. Rhea. They claim their concerns were disregarded by former Police Chief Steve Butell. So, they went to city officials with their concerns. That brought about the Bennett Investigation into the entire department. The Kansas Highway Patrol and Kansas Bureau of Investigation were also involved in the investigation.

Although no criminal wrong-doing was discovered, the department was suspended from use of the national crime computer for a month and had to go to training because the computer had been used to check on someone it shouldn't have.

Also during this time frame, Hawver paid a visit to a city council meeting and outlined a "hostile work environment" that his clients were being subjected to as a result of them going to city officials with their complaints about Rhea and prompting the investigation. The officers claimed they were being retaliated against by the police administration through job assignments, etc.

In a nutshell, the department was divided. Then, once the Bennett Investigation report was presented, the next couple of chapters started to unfold. The report was never released, but it led to suspensions of the officers for a day and a longer suspension for Butell.

Then there was a group appeal of the suspensions that put the officers and Butell on the same side for a change. I still find that one interesting, although I have been told -- off the record -- how that all fell together. I'm still not sure what to make of it.

Also during this time one of my favorite chapters unfolded when one of the officers recorded a tel ephone conversation with Mayor Ken Hayes. Hayes was unaware that it was being recorded. When the officers filed their complaints, the transcript of that conversation was released. We printed it in the Signal. I never understood how the tape was supposed t o do the officers any good. All it did was bring about a standard joke for months -- are you taping me?

Again the saga took a break and everyone had forgotten about it. Then, out of the blue, Butell resigned this summer. Reasons were never made public, ex cept that it had nothing to do with the Bennett report or any other part of the department debacle.

It was also about then that Hawver said he'd be filing the lawsuits in September. But he said Monday the timing just didn't fall together on his end for t hat. I wonder if it had anything to do with his campaign as a Libertarian candidate for governor.

But, it looked like the whole thing would fade away. McKenna was hired and everything was looking bright at the department. That didn't last long as the lawsuits finally were filed.

It's too bad. Like everyone else, I'm tired of it. Hawver says it can be settled out of court. We'll see. I hope it can all be worked out and we can finally move on.a

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