Archive for September, 2012

In an unsurprising decision, Judge Ronald Leighton declined to reverse himself on rulings he made during the civil trial in which a jury awarded $1 million to the parents of Douglas Ostling against the City of Bainbridge Island. Judge Leighton issued orders today denying the city’s motions for a Judgment as a Matter of Law and for a new trial.

The primary basis on which defense counsel for the city asked the court to invalidate the jury’s verdict and enter Judgment as a Matter of Law is that the jury exonerated Jeff Benkert, who shot and killed Douglas Ostling, and yet found the city liable. The city argued that under applicable case law, a jury cannot hold a municipality liable for constitutional violations as a result of the actions of its employees unless a particular, named employee is found to have violated the plaintiff’s constitutional rights. Because Officer Benkert was exonerated, the defense argued, the city cannot be held liable. (more…)

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This morning in U.S. District Court in Tacoma, attorneys for the City of Bainbridge Island and the family of Douglas Ostling argued the city’s post-trial motions before Judge Ronald Leighton.

In June, a jury awarded $1 million to Bill and Joyce Ostling whose son, Douglas, was shot and killed in 2010 by Bainbridge police officer, Jeff Benkert. The jury found that Benkert did not violate Ostling’s constitutional rights, but nevertheless awarded $1 million against the city for failure to train its officers in dealing with the mentally ill.

The city filed a motion asking Judge Leighton to enter a Judgment as a Matter of Law (which would set aside the jury’s verdict because it was not valid under the law). In a second motion, the city asked for a new trial for former police chief Jon Fehlman, because he was unable to attend trial and testify on his own behalf after he was hospitalized with pancreatitis.

Judge Leighton told the lawyers to focus primarily on the first motion in oral argument, questioning whether Fehlman “plays a role in this at all.” He later elaborated on that statement, saying that Fehlman was “in effect a placeholder” who acted in his official capacity on behalf of the city. Ostling attorney Nathan Roberts agreed, saying Fehlman’s absence from trial didn’t matter because the eventual judgment “will never be against his personal assets.” Roberts suggested that because the city appointed Lt. Phil Hawkins as acting police chief during the trial while Fehlman was ill, Hawkins would have been available to testify and should perhaps have been on the verdict form instead of Fehlman. (more…)

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Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, began last night at sundown. It marks the commencement of the Days of Awe in the Jewish calendar, a ten-day period of study, self-examination and repentance, ending next week with the holiest day in the Jewish Year, Yom Kippur–the Day of Atonement.

In a holiday filled with beautiful rituals, one of the most mysterious and powerful for me is that of the scapegoat.

On Yom Kippur in ancient Israel, the high priest put his hands on the head of a young goat and confessed over it the sins of all of the people. The goat, burdened by the communal wrongdoings, was led away to wander in the wilderness, never to return to the tribe. The carrier of sins was an “escape goat”, shortened in English to scapegoat.

The scapegoat, along with other rituals for repentance during the Days of Awe, allowed everyone to be cleansed of impurity, to start fresh in the new year.  But the holiday teaches that we cannot be cleansed of our misdeeds through mere substitution of the goat for ourselves. Only after self-examination, a sincere desire to be forgiven, and the resolve to change our ways, can we atone for our failures and shortcomings.

Scapegoats seem to serve a deep human need, for we see them all over the world in every era. In our modern, literal world, the scapegoat signifies an unfair cruelty, and no longer offers a sense of relief and forgiveness. Nevertheless, we continue to find people, nations, and cultures to blame for our own failings. (more…)

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“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]

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After two months,$25,000 and hundreds of pages of reports and exhibits, the report by investigator Rebecca Dean on the allegations against Chief Jon Fehlman by the police Guild is complete.

At the same time the report was released to the public, Interim City Manager Morgan Smith also announced that Fehlman has resigned.

Although the no confidence vote is no longer relevant to the question of whether Fehlman should stay, it is the clearest publicly available indication of the attitudes and thinking of Guild members and deserves careful consideration as the City moves forward with its anticipated police management study.

Smith directed Dean to investigate the allegations made in the Guild’s vote of no confidence, taken in June. Although Guild leadership has said its most significant complaint about Fehlman is his leadership style, Smith told Dean she was not to investigate allegations related to his performance in that areas or to policy matters “for which determinations or assessments would be subjective rather than fact-based.” Smith further instructed Dean not to investigate allegations related to the Ostling litigation, “which represents ongoing litigation.” (more…)

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Fehlman resigns

Today, Interim City Manager Morgan Smith makes the following statement:

“Police Chief Jon Fehlman has decided to resign from the City effective Saturday, September 15.  The terms of a separation agreement will be presented to the City Council tomorrow night. The City wishes Jon the best in his future endeavors and thanks him for his service to the City.  (more…)

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One bold idea floated by Islanders for Collaborative Policing is that the Bainbridge Island Municipal Code should be amended to change the penalties associated with its “minor in possession of alcohol” provision (MIP).

You have to give ICP this much: they’re looking at new ways to address a chronic problem on which we never seem to make much progress.

Teenage drinking is one of the most intractable and painful problems that parents and communities face. Anyone who watched Ken Burns’ “Prohibition” knows how much young Americans loved to drink in our grandparents’ time.  Alcohol and youth have been a potent combination since the ancient Greeks. Dionysus, the god of wine, was an underage drinker.

In spite of several thousand years of history, adults pretend we can conquer teen drinking with our magical parenting techniques and Enough Information. On Bainbridge Island, we’ve had no shortage of information-packed conferences, classes and task forces on substance use and risky teen behavior, with multiple experts assuring audiences of stricken-looking moms—-and a (very) few dads—–that if they were decent parents they could put a stop to that drinking once and for all. After those sessions, parents go home and either lay down the the no-tolerance law and drive their kids to better sneaking, or come down with a bad case of denial. (I realize there are a few of you out there with perfect kids. Feel free to judge. My kids are finally of legal age now, and pretty awesome. I admit without shame that they had some adolescent flaws.) (more…)

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