March 5, 2013 in City

Lawyer: City wrongly feared Assistant Chief Stephens posed workplace threat

By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photoBuy this photo

Former interim Spokane Police Chief Scott Stephens.
(Full-size photo)

The decision to place Assistant Spokane Police Chief Scott Stephens on paid administrative leave more than two months ago was based on erroneous assertions that he’d become so upset over his demotion that he was threatening workplace violence, an attorney said today.

Stephens’ attorney, Bob Dunn of Spokane, said the assertions are false but that Police Chief Frank Straub and Mayor David Condon are using the allegation to ruin the veteran officer’s reputation in an attempt to force him out of the department. The alleged threats were relayed to city officials by a member of the police department who claimed the assistant chief told her that he “was going home to get his weapon,” Dunn said.

Stephens served as interim chief for nine months last year until he was replaced by Straub on Oct. 1. After that, Stephens was assistant chief.

Sometime in December, Stephens was informed that he would be demoted to captain, a position ranked below assistant chief and the newly created position of commander.

Dunn said after he was told about the demotion, Stephens had a private conversation with a friend who works within the department.

“The story is that this friend went to (newly appointed Assistant Chief Craig) Meidl and Straub and indicated that Stephens was so distraught that he was going to go home and get his weapon,” Dunn said.

Dunn declined to name the colleague. He said that Stephens told her that he felt betrayed and that he felt “he was a victim of the politics of the mayor’s office and police department.” Dunn said Stephens made no threats.

Based on the allegation, though, Straub placed Stephens, a 27-year veteran of the force, on leave on Dec. 20, Dunn said.

Dunn’s comments today are the first public explanation given for why Stephens was placed on leave. City officials have consistently declined to provide reasoning.

Officials have said they have been hesitant to discuss the issue, in part, because some recent judgments against the city have partly been the result of the city publicly discussing a personnel issue before they were fully resolved.

Mayor David Condon announced Monday that retired U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan, of Oregon, will lead the investigation into the “circumstances” that led Straub to place Stephens on leave. The department has its own staff to investigate such matters, but officials said that they didn’t want to put them into the awkward position of investigating their former boss. Dunn said that Stephens will participate in the investigation because “he has nothing to hide.”

After he was placed on leave, Stephens was required to be evaluated by a psychologist to ensure he was fit for duty. Dunn said Stephens “passed with flying colors.”

Stephens was informed soon after he was placed on leave that an Internal Affairs investigation would begin, but that investigation was delayed while the city encouraged him to retire, Dunn said.

“They are using this IA as a club to force him to retire,” Dunn said.

Dunn said the city informed him that Stephens had until 5 p.m. Thursday to accept a deal on the table allowing him to return to work. That proposal called for Stephens to be a lieutenant with “unspecified duties” who would report directly to Straub, Dunn said. On Friday, Dunn wrote the city asking for clarification. He said he didn’t hear anything back from the city until Condon announced that Hogan was hired to investigate the matter.

“My concern was that his unspecified duties would be going out and counting parking meters,” Dunn said.

Stephens was willing to consider early retirement if a deal had been crafted that left him unharmed by recent events, Dunn said.

“He’s got a huge amount of loyalty to the police department, but he’s concerned that this campaign to sully his reputation is going to make it untenable for him to assume a leadership position over the people he was once in charge of,” Dunn said.

Straub announced a reorganization of the department on Dec. 21. Part of the change was to eliminate the position of major, replacing it with commander.

Dunn said that the reorganization was a scheme to bump Stephens low enough that he would not be part of the command staff. Under civil service rules, Stephens had a right if removed as assistant chief to go back to the highest civil service rank he previously held. That was major. But since that position was no longer available, the city announced he would be a captain and later knocked him to a lieutenant’s position.

“They recast the title – not the job – so they could put Stephens in some back room,” Dunn said.

Glenn Kibbey, chief examiner for the Spokane Civil Service Commission, said that Straub and city administrators told him that they wanted to create the position of commander because there was little difference in the salary and responsibility level of majors and captains. Commanders, Kibbey said he was told, would be paid more than majors and have more responsibility.

The Civil Service Commission agreed to create the position in response to the request on Dec. 18. But city administrators later decided to pay commanders the same salary that majors earned.

“So we don’t accomplish what the intent was, as explained to me, by creating the new classification,” Kibbey said.

Stephens was reluctant to take the interim chief’s position because of the climate within the department at the time. But he agreed to take the job out of loyalty and because he was assured by Condon that he would be seriously considered for the job. Before selecting finalists, Condon announced that Stephens was no longer in the running.

“Stephens was relegated into the role of chauffeur” for the finalists for the job, Dunn said.

A law enforcement panel created to review the finalists for chief, including Straub, recommended that Condon restart the search. That panel included Stephens, former Spokane Police Chief Roger Bragdon and Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.

After Straub arrived and Stephens assumed the role of assistant chief, Stephens sensed communication problems existed between them that were likely the result of Straub retaliating against him for participating in the panel that recommended a new candidate search, Dunn said.

Two days after the commission agreed to create the position, Stephens was placed on leave.

This story is developing and will be updated.

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