August 31, 2006 in City

Council in dark on cop’s rehiring

By and The Spokesman-Review
 

Several Spokane City Council members are complaining they were given inadequate information last year when they were asked in executive session to approve the rehiring of a Spokane police officer who kicked a restrained man in the chest.

The Spokesman-Review reported Sunday on documents from a 2004 police internal affairs investigation that resulted in the firing of Sgt. Jerry Hensley by former Police Chief Roger Bragdon. The documents show that nine of 12 officers who responded in January 2004 to restrain a meth-addicted man said Hensley’s kick was excessive force.

Hensley appealed and was rehired in June 2005 after the council, with no public explanation of the circumstances, voted an emergency appropriation of $43,214 in back pay to Hensley.

The vote came during the final months of Mayor Jim West’s tenure before he was recalled by voters in December 2005 in an abuse of power scandal.

At Monday’s council meeting, Councilman Al French complained that elected officials got far more information from Sunday’s newspaper story than they’d been given before voting to approve the funds to reinstate Hensley, now a detective making $67,734 a year.

“I was in that executive session. I can’t give you the exact details, but we didn’t have the breadth of information you had,” French said.

“We were told it was a personnel matter and it was under the mayor and we didn’t have the right or authority to interfere. It was cloaked under the umbrella of personnel issues. We were told the arbitrator had made a recommendation when he hadn’t yet,” French said.

“I recall that everyone was very mum and I couldn’t get much information,” said Councilwoman Mary Verner. “This was a lot of money at a time when we were developing a severe financial crisis in the city. It was frustrating.”

Former City Councilwoman Cherie Rodgers, who seconded the 2005 motion to spend the money to rehire Hensley, was even more blunt.

“They lied to us,” Rodgers said this week about the rehiring recommendation from Deputy Mayor Jack Lynch and city legal staff.

“They told us it was a recommendation of the arbitrator to settle. I was surprised to see that the arbitrator hadn’t written his ruling,” Rodgers said.

If the arbitrator’s decision had been in writing, it would have been public record. But the legal settlement kept most information about the Jan. 24, 2004, excessive force incident under wraps. As a condition of the settlement, Hensley also can’t talk about it for five years, according to police spokesman Cpl. Tom Lee.

The council also was told there were “other excessive force incidents involving other officers that hadn’t resulted in discipline and that would have given Hensley grounds to come back and sue,” Rodgers said.

Deputy Mayor Lynch denied misleading the council about Hensley.

“I don’t understand what information they feel they are lacking. They knew he’d been fired and the arbitrator was going to reinstate him. He was demoted and given a special assignment directly under the chief for one year. He was under the direct supervision of Bragdon,” Lynch said.

Bob Apple was the only councilman in the 6-1 vote to oppose Hensley’s rehiring. He said he voted no because Bragdon had fired him and that decision should have been final. He also said the council should have had access to the internal affairs reports the newspaper recently obtained.

The council voted without adequate information and that is one more example of a “major staff problem” at City Hall, Apple said.

French agreed, saying he’s “extremely disappointed” by how the Hensley controversy was handled.

“We have many good officers, but this incident makes the whole department look bad. That’s my disappointment,” French said.

Because the council has the power of the purse strings, it may need additional staff to help it do its own “due diligence” on such decisions, French said.

“We have to rely on the mayor and the mayor’s staff to provide us accurate, truthful and fair information. When that doesn’t happen, you get situations like this,” he said.

Council President Joe Shogan, who also heads the city’s Public Safety Committee, said he couldn’t remember details of the discussion on Hensley’s rehiring and wouldn’t convey information from the closed-door session if he could remember. He said the council wants to hire a legislative researcher to give it better information on a wide variety of issues.

Spokane needs a better system to monitor the Police Department, French said. He favors Boise’s system of an independent, civilian ombudsman.

Boise’s community ombudsman is a full-time city employee who has a budget of nearly $300,000 and two assistants.

Several City Council members have been talking informally about police oversight, he added.

“We as a council haven’t had that discussion yet. We’ll start to develop that dialogue with the new chief,” Anne Kirkpatrick, after she takes over in September, French said.

That discussion is “premature,” Shogan said, until an independent review of the Police Department by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs is finished over the next month to six weeks.

Mayor Dennis Hession called for the review after a series of police controversies this year, including the death of Otto Zehm, a mentally ill janitor, after a confrontation with police in March and a police investigation of a firehouse sex incident that resulted in loss of photos of the sexual encounter with a 16-year-old girl from the digital camera of fireman Daniel Ross.

“I’m waiting to hear what the independent review has to say,” Shogan said Wednesday.


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