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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: WSU forced an accounting on its police department

Washington State University President Kirk Schulz speaks at a ceremony announcing a partnership between the VA medical center and the WSU medical school in 2020 in Spokane.  (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State University President Kirk Schulz speaks at a ceremony announcing a partnership between the VA medical center and the WSU medical school in 2020 in Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

At least WSU was pushing.

That’s the takeaway from what happened this week with the leadership of the Washington State University police department. The chief, assistant chief and a captain all retired “in lieu of possible termination” over their failure to alert university officials about reports that an officer had engaged in on-duty sexual conduct around campus – including trysts in the presidential suite at Martin Stadium and the university observatory.

In the command staff’s response to the allegations, they exhibited “gross misconduct, incompetence and neglect of duty,” the university said in a lengthy announcement Tuesday.

According to that statement and the records from subsequent university investigations, when the department leadership learned of these allegations against the officer, they handled it internally, made limited investigative efforts, and gave the officer little more than a written scolding – all while keeping the matter from higher-ups at the school.

“These are positions of great public trust and WSU will not tolerate this kind of behavior nor the negligence of departmental command staff,” President Kirk Schulz said in the statement.

“When university leadership recently became aware of these allegations and the questionable way they had been handled earlier within the department, we immediately initiated a full investigation.”

Example No. 5,342,176 of the failures of accountability that occur when police departments police themselves.

The good news is that the university did not sweep this under the rug, and that it was a WSU police officer who reported these allegations on two different occasions – initially to the department leadership and then to higher-ups at the college.

Gone are WSU Police Chief Bill Gardner, Assistant Chief Steve Hanson and Capt. Mike Larson. Each has notified WSU that they would retire rather than face possible firing.

Resolving the matter in this fashion does not spare the officers any consequences, said Phil Weiler, vice president for marketing and communications at WSU. Whether they were fired or they retired, their retirement benefits would be paid to them because they were earned during their employment.

“Practically speaking it’s the same outcome” as if they were terminated, he said. “It doesn’t benefit them financially one way or another.”

Also, the findings will remain a part of their university records and available to any potential future employers.

This case grew from the allegations that Officer Matt Kuhrt was having sex while on duty around campus; the claims were first reported by a WSU officer to the department’s command staff in December 2020.

According to university records released Tuesday, this report involved a specific incident, as well as rumors that Kuhrt was known “for frequently taking girls to the observatory and presidential suite.”

University policy required the department to report these claims to the school’s Office of Compliance and Civil Rights and the human resources department. Instead, WSU police conducted an internal investigation, and weren’t able to find a witness willing to file a complaint, the university release said.

However, records also show Kuhrt admitted in an interview that he’d engaged in on-duty sexual conduct. A later investigation by the compliance office would reveal that others in the department were aware of further concerns with Kuhrt, including allegations that he had made inappropriate comments about female cadets, sent inappropriate photos to a former department employee, and used a cell phone ring tone associated with a porn site, university records show.

Most of these concerns were not reported, and the CCR concluded that the department did not have a culture where employees felt encouraged to report their concerns or expect that misconduct would be taken seriously.

In the initial investigation, department leaders concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to take substantial action, gave Kuhrt a “letter of admonishment” and prohibited him from working overtime for about four months – but did not send that letter to human resources to be included in the officer’s personnel file.

In March of this year, a university police officer notified WSU leaders about the case. The compliance office and the human resources department then opened their own inquiries.

Kuhrt was placed on home assignment during this process, where he remains as the investigation into his conduct proceeds, WSU sasid.

In July, Gardner, Hanson and Larson were also placed on home assignment while they were being investigated, and their duties were given to others.

“Shortly thereafter, the university advised the command staff that disciplinary proceedings were being initiated against them based on the investigation’s findings that they exhibited gross misconduct, incompetence, and neglect of duty in their response to the claims of sexual misconduct involving the officer,” the university said.

While WSU looks for permanent replacements, retired Pullman Police Chief Gary Jenkins will serve as interim chief of the WSU department, and Sgt. Dawn Daniels, who has been acting chief, will be assistant chief, the university said.

Accountability is hard for any organization. We’ve seen time and again that it’s especially hard for police agencies to look into their own misconduct.

In this case, the university did the right thing – and gave the brass a push.

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