“The evidence partially supports and partially refutes the Guild’s allegations.”
That sentence appears throughout the Rebecca Dean report on the allegations in the Bainbridge Island Police Guild’s vote of no confidence against Chief Jon Fehlman. It could serve as a summary of the report itself, which partially addresses the Guild’s allegations, and is partially inconclusive. It could also be a portrait of the Guild, which comes across as partially a group of dedicated officers and partially a band of immature tattletales.
The allegations in the Guild’s no confidence vote range from relatively minor judgment errors or misunderstandings on Fehlman’s part, to rehashing of previously resolved union complaints, to petty gossip and rumor, to at least one falsehood. For a summary, go here.
Now that Fehlman has resigned, issues about his performance are no longer relevant. But the rest of the department remains–and Bainbridge will be well served if the police management study proposed by Interim City Manager Morgan Smith looks at the BIPD’s organization and culture, the influence of the Guild, the quality of each member’s performance, and the attitude they have toward each other, their work and to the members of the community they serve.
As a glimpse into BIPD culture, one Guild allegation stands out for its dishonesty and recklessness: the claim that Fehlman falsely stated in deposition testimony that he gave an oral reprimand to Lieutenant Chris Jensen for providing faulty information about the Ostling shooting. The Guild wrote in its no confidence complaint: “The Chief’s statement under oath violates policy and state laws relating to perjury and false swearing.” [emphasis in the original]
There was no hedging in the Guild’s statement, no “may have violated” or “appears to have violated.” It was not an expression of an opinion, but rather, an outright and untrue accusation that Fehlman committed a crime. The disbelief of the Kitsap County Prosecutor was nearly palpable in the Decline to Prosecute notice, which said Lt. Jensen admitted Fehlman expressed his “displeasure with Jensen regarding the information provided.” The notice concluded that “a reasonable person could find that this conversation constituted an ‘oral reprimand’ as stated by Chief Fehlman. It is highly unlikely that a criminal jury would find the statement to be false beyond a reasonable doubt.”
I’ll leave it to Fehlman and his lawyer to decide if that statement, published by the Guild and seized upon by Fehlman’s critics, is worth a lawsuit for defamation.
But as citizens, we should be more troubled than ever about the competence, honesty and professionalism of our police force. If the Guild members who made this accusation had so little regard for truth-telling, due diligence and fairness with their own boss, what can the rest of us expect?
It’s worth remembering that Fehlman’s much-maligned press conference the day after the Ostling shooting was based on bad information given to him by Lt. Jensen. When Fehlman learned that the information was incorrect, he reprimanded the lieutenant, and testified in his deposition that he had done so.
Jensen has trashed Fehlman’s reputation twice: once when Fehlman relied (foolishly, it turns out) on inaccurate reporting by Jensen after the shooting, and the second time in the no confidence vote, when Jensen (aided by the Guild) tried to shift blame for his own deficient work onto a chief who trusted him and took the relentless heat for months afterwards.
To steal a phrase from Bill Clinton, it takes some brass to attack a guy for doing what you did.
Jon Fehlman’s tenure at the BIPD has ended. But the department’s problems existed before he arrived and will continue after he leaves.
We’ve seen too much evidence of disrespect from some Guild members to return to business as usual once Fehlman departs. Both the perjury accusation and the stalking of a council member by Officer Scott Weiss, who was Guild president at the time, indicate far deeper problems than the departure of the chief and a PR campaign can solve. There is no place for that kind of vindictiveness and defiance in a professional law enforcement agency.
I’m glad Morgan Smith is asking the Council to approve the police management study. But we can’t stop with another report to put on the shelf. We need the political honesty and will to put any recommendations into place, and a City management and Council with the guts and integrity to take the heat that will come with any change.
(*Here is the Decline to Prosecute Notice: KC Prosecutor)