Robert Lehner learned of the “hate crime assassination” of two Sikh men in the Sacramento, California, suburb of Elk Grove while flying to visit his ailing mother.
The killings of Surinder Singh, 65, and Gurmej Atwal, 78, shook the community of about 160,000 people and prompted nationwide interest from anti-hate groups, Lehner said, as well as offers of help from the Department of Justice.
But Lehner, Elk Grove’s police chief, wanted the officers under his command to be the faces the community saw in those difficult days. And he knew his police force could work with local civil rights groups and reject the bigotry the shootings displayed.
“Even though the overall statistical risk is really low, the fact that it happened at all was a gut-wrenching moment for our community,” Lehner, who is one of two finalists to head the Spokane Police Department, said Wednesday in an interview at City Hall.
Lehner, 61, comes to Spokane by way of Elk Grove, Eugene and Tucson, Arizona. The South Carolina native began his career as an officer in Tucson in October 1978 and worked his way through the sworn ranks to become assistant chief. He was appointed chief of the Eugene Police Department in January 2004.
Lehner took over in Eugene amid a flurry of allegations two police officers were committing sexually driven crimes against citizens. He inherited a fledgling police oversight system that had been approved by voters and drew criticism toward the end of his tenure for failing to inform the head of the department’s civilian oversight office that a complaint had been made about one of his detectives having an improper sexual relationship with a confidential informant. Instead of handing off the complaint to the civilian oversight office, Lehner assigned a sergeant to the case and did not inform the office of the investigation.
Lehner said Wednesday he’d make the same decision today he did in 2008 to protect the informant from “a person with a known history of killing informants.”
“I knew I was dealing with a complaint that had no real substance,” Lehner said. “Every single person, additionally, that had her name was at risk.”
Lehner said the woman at the center of the complaint denied any relationship with the detective to investigators.
His decision drew a rebuke from the city’s then-Police Auditor Cristina Beamud, who charged Lehner with avoiding her office, violating a city ordinance and ignoring the will of Eugene voters in calling for police reform, according to reports from the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper. The paper reported nearly a year later that a district attorney in Lane County ruled Lehner’s actions appropriate, but that the investigative process would have been aided by better communication between Lehner and Beamud.
Beamud, now head of a similar civilian oversight panel in Miami, could not be reached for comment.
Lehner on Wednesday echoed the district attorney’s finding in the case.
“There were some mistakes made there,” he said. “What we didn’t have in our system then was a way of resolving differences of opinion about law.”
Lehner left the Eugene department to head Elk Grove’s force in 2008, serving as the office’s second police chief. Sgt. Daniel Schnepple, the former head of the police union in Elk Grove, said this week Lehner was able to navigate the department through budget cuts without losing any personnel.
“Everybody was making cutbacks,” Schnepple said. “We didn’t.”
Amar Shergill, an Elk Grove attorney and member of the Sikh community who has worked on behalf of the families of the slain men Singh and Atwal, also praised Lehner for his work reaching out to members of that faith and pursuing the crimes, which remain unsolved.
“Chief Lehner’s department did an amazing job ensuring the Sikh community received the support it needed,” Shergill said Wednesday. “I cannot speak highly enough regarding the Elk Grove Police Department.”
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