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Shawn Vestal: Phil Tyler fallout expands to complaints from jail staff

Phil Tyler, former president of the NAACPs Spokane chapter, urges the community to push back against hate crimes during an October 12, 2017 press conference.  Tyler, who has faced domestic violence allegations from his ex-wives, now is facing more scrutiny from his time as a Spokane County Jail corrections officer. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It started with a video of local male leaders urging support for victims of domestic violence, organized by former NAACP President Phil Tyler.

It continued in February with the appearance of Tyler and other leaders at a “Time’s Up” forum about sexual violence.

Women began pushing back – against not the message but the messenger.

Last week, the Inlander published a story detailing credible domestic violence abuse allegations lodged against Tyler by three ex-wives in interviews and court records. Tyler, who has seemed poised to jump into a run for office at any moment, initially responded with defensiveness and pique, suggesting he was a victim of defamation not unlike Martin Luther King Jr., before issuing a belated, somewhat more contrite apology.

Time’s up, indeed.

Now Tyler’s term as a corrections officer at the Spokane County Jail has been brought into the reckoning. The County Commission has hired an outside attorney to investigate a complaint that jail director John McGrath attempted last year to facilitate an interview with a local TV station to “expose sexual harassment” by Tyler.

The complaint, made in a Facebook post by a woman who formerly worked at the jail, alleged that McGrath and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich “had full knowledge and proof of these transgressions” and that there was long-term abuse, misogyny and mistreatment of women at the jail.

The complaints appear to refer to matters raised by the sergeants union in a letter of no confidence against Tyler, then a lieutenant, written in October 2011. That letter and a subsequent investigation detailed a range of complaints about Tyler creating a hostile environment for subordinates, including a pattern of “particularly aggressive” behavior toward female employees. That complaint did not allege misconduct of a sexual nature; it was closed as “unfounded” by Knezovich.

Knezovich said he asked the commissioners to hire the investigator, but he said he believes the complaint is baseless and he defended his actions disciplining sexual harassers at the jail and advocating for domestic violence programs in the community.

After the Facebook post appeared, “I went to the commissioners and said, ‘You might want to look into this,’ ” he said. “I can tell you we don’t tolerate sexual harassment in the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office or the jail.”

Commissioner Josh Kerns said the investigation is intended to see if the jail administration has followed policies on sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

“We take this very seriously here,” he said. “We have a zero-tolerance policy.”

‘We call on you’

Tyler was briefly the president of the NAACP’s chapter in Spokane, resigning last year with some not-remotely-subtle hints that he was considering a political race to come. He’s a regular presence at local political and community events, as are his selfies on social media from those events; in early March he participated in a “congressional civil-rights pilgrimage” with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and a group of other local leaders.

After the Inlander story appeared, some community leaders made a point of publicly supporting the three women who had come forward, on the record, to tell their stories. Tyler’s ex-wives allege, among other things, that he pushed, struck, choked and threatened them.

Tyler’s initial response was to deny the allegations and suggest he was the victim of a political smear campaign, which only intensified the criticism he was receiving.

The Spokane chapter of the National Organization for Women issued a blistering public statement, accusing Tyler of “victim-blaming and gaslighting” in his responses.

“There is no way for the community to move forward until there is an acknowledgment of his role in these incidents,” the statement read. “We cannot begin to heal survivors of domestic violence, or repair the trust of a community until abusers accept responsibility instead of continued repudiation. Mr. Tyler, we call on you to take accountability for your actions. There is room for redemption but you must take the first step.”

City Council members made a point of expressing support for, and belief in, the women. Some of the leaders who had appeared with Tyler in the video, including Mayor David Condon and police Chief Craig Meidl, issued statements decrying domestic violence but without reference to Tyler.

Tyler later released a statement with his wife in which they apologized “to any survivors who may have felt traumatized or revictimized by the story or our video,” and said his wife, Meg, would meet with NOW leaders to “determine their willingness to engage in constructive conversations and paths in continuing to serve and advocate for the community we love.”

The statement also said he did not deny “matters of record,” but that some of the allegations or characterizations of abuse aren’t true. He did not address them more specifically or return a message seeking comment for this column.

‘Issues’ with females

Meanwhile, as that played out, a single Facebook post was rippling under the surface.

The day after the Time’s Up gathering on Feb. 8, Barbara Tiplady Hammer, a former jail employee, posted, “I am inspired and proud of women raising their voices against harassment and mistreatment, especially in institutions where powerful men have kept generations of women quiet. I am also devastated that former Jail Lt. Phil Tyler and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich have penetrated something that was meant to help and give women a voice.”

Hammer wrote that McGrath had directed a co-worker to set up an interview to expose Tyler’s harassment, but that the women involved feared they would suffer retaliation if they did so.

Hammer has not returned messages seeking comment. Her complaints appear to refer, at least in part, to numerous allegations of confrontational, argumentative behavior on Tyler’s part that were part of a sergeants union’s letter of no confidence in 2011.

In the course of a follow-up investigation, employees reported several instances of women reporting they were treated confrontationally, disrespectfully and with hostility by Tyler; one male deputy told an investigator that he believed Tyler was “(particularly) aggressive toward females” and mentioned five women who said they’d had problems with him.

One of the women said she had become convinced that “Lt. Tyler has issues with female deputies.”

‘You’re done’

Knezovich acknowledged that Tyler had leadership problems resulting from a style that could be too rigid or demanding. The union complaint included many instances of similar “hostile” behavior from Tyler toward male subordinates, too. He emphasized that there were not complaints about sexual advances or comments.

“Phil Tyler was never accused of sexual harassment – ever,” he said.

He said he met with the sergeants at the time, who agreed with him that there was not cause to fire or demote Tyler. At least some jail staffers do not believe the case was handled appropriately, however, as Hammer’s post makes clear.

Knezovich said he ordered Tyler to undergo anger management. Tyler left the jail in 2014; he later filed a complaint alleging racial discrimination. Spokane County settled with Tyler for $100,000 in Dec. 2016.

Knezovich defended his record on responding to complaints of sexual harassment – he said he’s been acting quickly to discipline harassers for years. A list he provided of the reasons for terminating employees since 2006 includes several who were terminated or left their jobs due to sexual harassment or misbehavior complaints.

Knezovich said the current investigation is not focused on the complaints about Tyler from 2011, but about the conduct alleged regarding McGrath trying to set up an interview.

The sheriff has said that Tyler’s domestic violence history should have disqualified him from working as a deputy, and that he would have fired Tyler had there been allegations of a sexual nature.

“If you sexually harass someone in the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, you’re done,” he said. “I don’t care who you are.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed on March 26, 2018 to include information that Spokane County settled Tyler’s lawsuit for $100,000.

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