April 15, 2010 in City

Union says members lack faith in police chief

Guild won’t reveal tally of no-confidence vote
Meghann M. Cuniff And Jonathan Brunt Staff writers
 
File photo

Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, shown in 2009, called the Police Guild’s vote a “failed coup.”
(Full-size photo)

Union leaders representing Spokane Police Department officers say they have approved a no-confidence vote against Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and her administration.

The Spokane Police Guild said a “majority” of its 268 members voted in March that they have no confidence in the “office” of the police chief.

“Our people are shaken to the core over this lack of trust,” said Guild President Ernie Wuthrich, a Spokane police detective. “We’re at an all-time low at this point.”

But union leaders refuse to release vote tallies, saying they never have for other votes and see no need to now.

Despite the vote, Kirkpatrick enjoys strong support from elected leaders, who credit her for holding employees to higher standards, and the department’s lieutenants and captains, who gave her a vote of approval after learning of the union’s vote.

Kirkpatrick said Wednesday that she has doubts that the union’s no-confidence vote won a majority of votes of the total membership.

“To me, the question is, why are you hiding your numbers?” Kirkpatrick said. “To me, this is a failed coup. … They called for my firing and the mayor has made it very clear that’s not happening.”

She called the timing suspicious, noting that she announced early this year that she is applying for the open police chief position in Seattle. Kirkpatrick also questioned why the guild’s no-confidence vote is about the “office” of the chief, not just about Kirkpatrick.

Federal court documents filed this week indicate that Assistant Chief Jim Nicks will testify that Officer Karl Thompson used excessive force against a mentally ill janitor who died in police custody. Wuthrich said the vote was unrelated to Nicks’ possible testimony.

Wuthrich and Guild 1st Vice President Jeff Harvey, a detective, say the issues come down to how Kirkpatrick implements change, how she handles discipline and how she works with the union. Specifically, union leaders point to changes in shift schedules, the neighborhood policing program and the way the Police Department investigates critical incidents such as officer-involved shootings.

“She’s going to do what she wants to do and she expects the guild to pick up the pieces,” Wuthrich said. “People can lose their jobs because of a mere allegation.”

Instead of working with union leaders to avoid unfair labor practices and arbitration, she’ll make decisions knowing they’ll likely be reversed through the union process, Wuthrich said.

Kirkpatrick stressed that she always seeks advice from the city legal staff and human resources department and sometimes the mayor when severe discipline is considered.

The decisions “are not made in a vacuum,” she said.

Guild leaders point to recent cases that give them pause:

•Kirkpatrick fired Officer Jason Uberuaga after he was accused of rape and used department-issued cell phone to photograph the woman’s breasts. No charges were filed, and a civilian arbitrator ordered Kirkpatrick to reinstate Uberuaga with back pay.

•Detective Jay Mehring was placed on leave without pay after he allegedly threatened his estranged wife. A jury acquitted him, and Mehring kept his job and earned back pay.

•In another case, Wuthrich said, the union hired an investigator to help an employee facing dismissal for sexual harassment. The investigators found evidence the accuser was lying and saved the employee’s job.

“We’ve never had to do that before because the chiefs have been reasonable, or they’ve been more thorough,” Wuthrich said.

Union leaders declined to discuss the recent case of Sgt. Brad Thoma, who left the force in December after an arrest for drunken driving and hit-and-run. Kirkpatrick told Thoma he would be eligible to return as a detective – a demotion – once his driver’s license was restored without a Breathalyzer requirement, which would take at least two years. Thoma has filed a $4 million wrongful termination claim against the city.

Capt. Steve Braun, president of the Spokane police Lieutenants and Captains Association, said “I think all but one” of its 13 members gave Kirkpatrick a vote of approval when they learned of the union’s pending vote.

“We have confidence in the leadership and the direction that it’s going,” Braun said. “There’s a perception at the line level, and at the supervisor’s level, about what’s broken and what’s the best remedy. … These types of issues occur in any type of organization that has the number of employees that we do.”

Braun said of the seven chiefs for whom he’s worked, Kirkpatrick is the best.

“I just don’t see a personal agenda in her,” Braun said.

Elected leaders brushed aside the vote, saying it’s difficult to take seriously without knowing the tally.

“I’m not concerned,” said City Council President Joe Shogan. “I have confidence in the chief.”

Kirkpatrick said she would not comment on the guild’s vote after Wednesday and that she will move toward healing the department.

“The struggles I have are with the leadership, not the membership,” she said. “I believe in this department, and we will get through it.”


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