March 6, 2013 in City

False claim led to leave, Stephens’ attorney says

Ex-interim chief denies making threat of work violence after being demoted
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Stephens
(Full-size photo)

The decision to place Spokane police Assistant 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 Tuesday.

Stephens’ attorney, Bob Dunn, of Spokane, said the assertions are false but that 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.

Condon said Tuesday that he could not comment on the allegation that led Straub to place Stephens on leave, but he believes the city is responding as fairly as possible to the situation. He 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. Condon said the city will use the department’s usual Internal Affairs process, except that the investigation will be completed by Hogan instead of police staff.

“That’s exactly why I brought in Judge Hogan, who doesn’t have a fish to fry in this investigation except to provide me to the best of his ability the veracity of the statements, the legitimacy of the instance,” Condon said.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said he agrees with Condon’s decision to hire Hogan to perform the investigation.

“He seems like a really unbiased, very reasonable guy,” Stuckart said.

Dunn said Stephens will participate in the investigation because “he has nothing to hide.”

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. In December, he 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 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 Tuesday are the first public explanation given for why Stephens was placed on leave. City officials have consistently declined to provide reasoning for Straub’s decision, citing the need to keep personnel matters confidential.

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.

Condon said he considered Stephens’ service to the city when delaying the investigation to allow for a possible deal with Stephens. But as negotiations bogged down, he determined the investigation should move forward.

“You can only go so far and then you need to continue with your process,” Condon said.

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.”

Dunn said the city informed him that Stephens had until 5 p.m. last Thursday to accept a deal 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 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. Stephens was a 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.

Condon said Straub reorganized the department for the sole purpose of improving the department’s service.

“This is based on years of both academic and practical implementation throughout our country,” Condon said. “What it is is a way to get a handle on our crime problem, which we have.”

Condon said the department has not ruled out the possibility of Stephens serving as a captain.

“Is it a possibility? Sure. Right now it officially doesn’t exist.”

Glenn Kibbey, chief examiner for the Spokane Civil Service Commission, said 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 and have more responsibility than majors had.

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, Kibbey said.

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

Stephens was reluctant to take the interim chief’s position because of the climate within the department at the time, Dunn said, 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.

But Condon said he doesn’t remember Stephens telling him that he planned to apply for the job. Condon said he believed there needed to a formal process so the community would have input into choosing a chief.

“It never got to the point where ‘Damn it, I want the job, mayor.’ ” Condon said. “For a job like that you need somebody who says, ‘Damn it, I want the job.’ ”

Dunn said Stephens made it clear he wanted the job and the only reason he didn’t apply was Condon told him he wouldn’t be considered.

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