Demoted police employee files claims against city

Attorney: Police created hostile work environment for former interim chief Scott Stephens

Published On: Mar 11 2013 11:34:50 AM PDT   Updated On: Mar 05 2013 05:47:44 PM PST
Scott Stephens
SPOKANE, Wash. -

Departmental reorganization, a demotion and a claim that he threatened to "go postal" has put Scott Stephens at odds with the Spokane Police Department, an organization he once ran as interim police chief.

These claims come from attorney Bob Dunn, who spoke with KXLY Tuesday to explain the circumstances surrounding his client being placed on administrative leave last December and the city's move to conduct an independent internal affairs investigation into Stephens.

Mayor David Condon, at an afternoon media briefing held after Dunn held several interviews with local media Tuesday morning, said the decision to bring in an outside party to investigate the Stephens matter was because the city wanted to have transparency and confidence in their review of the matter.

When Anne Kirkpatrick resigned as police chief in late 2011, Condon tapped Scott Stephens to take over as interim chief. For the next nine months Stephens served in that capacity while a search was conducted to find the next chief of police. Despite nearly three decades of service with the Spokane Police Department, early on in the search Condon determined Stephens wouldn't be considered for the position. Stephens stayed on as interim chief until Straub was sworn in as police chief late last summer.

Mayor Condon said Tuesday he stood by his position the selection of Straub as chief was not pre-determined, and that with an "unacceptable" crime rate the police department needed to change and do things differently than they used to, which required a leader that had a solid understanding of metro policing models and experience in implementing cutting-edge policing techniques and approaches.

Several months into Straub's tenure as chief, he decided to make some significant changes to his command staff. Dunn said that last December, Straub talked to Stephens the day before Straub and Condon announced a sweeping reorganization of the force. Stephens was told he was being demoted from assistant chief to captain. Stephens, the one-time SWAT Team commander who led the department during the interim period between former Chief Anne Kirkpatrick's departure and Straub's swearing in, was being placed in charge of getting the department reaccredited.

Stephens, Dunn said, did not take the reorganization well.

Stephens complained to a fellow officer that he thought he was being treated unfairly. That officer, in turn, went and told Major Craig Meidl, who had been promoted to assistant chief as Stephens' replacement, and Straub. The officer said Stephens had vented his concerns, but then added that Stephens was threatening "to go postal."

Regarding the question of whether Stephens made the "go postal" comment as a fellow officer asserted, Condon deflected Tuesday, saying that was something an independent investigation would determine.

Immediately after being made aware of his comments last December, Straub suspended Stephens and ordered him to take a fitness for duty mental health examination with Dr. Louis Sowers. Sowers cleared Stephens for duty.

Since he was placed on administrative leave in December, the department has been working to resolve Stephens' case by finding a way for him to retire from the force.

"For over a month, we've been negotiating with the city to determine what kind of severance package they could give him if he would just leave quietly," Bob Dunn said.

Before the reorganization he had been assistant chief, however with the reorganization he was a captain, a significant cut in benefits. Their first offer for Stephens was to retire as a captain. But then the department later made a second offer: They were offering him retirement at lieutenant, which would be another cut to his benefits.

At the reorganization he had been demoted to captain, but since he was placed on administrative leave the department decided if Stephens were to return to the force, he would do so at the rank of lieutenant, not captain, a further demotion down from assistant chief, representing a substantial loss to his retirement benefits package.

"They have reduced his salary," Dunn said. "He's being paid a lieutenant's salary. We think that's retaliation and we think it's a hostile work environment they've created for him that's actionable, civilly."

Mayor Condon contradicted Dunn's claim, saying that Stephens is still being paid the salary of an assistant chief of police.

Despite all of this, Dunn, representing Stephens, and the city were close to hammering out a retirement deal that would get Stephens retirement at captain's pay when, last Thursday, Dunn said that the offer was made to Stephens to sign an agreement right there and then as a lieutenant or they would move forward with an internal affairs investigation against him. Stephens did not sign the agreement.

The city made good on that warning Monday when they announced that retired federal Judge Michael Hogan, who successfully mediated a settlement between the city and Otto Zehm's estate, would be investigating an insubordination claim leveled against Stephens.

Stephens, in turn, filed a civil service complaint against the police department. Dunn said the threat of him suing the department is very real because, according to Dunn, a jury would believe that Stephens had not been insubordinate.

"It's a spinning contest, he said/she said. We've got a police chief with 27 years of loyal service, dedicated to this community. I don't think there's any question that a jury hearing this thing is gonna believe Chief Stephens," Dunn said.

Dunn does have a positive track record of defending officers in situations like the one Stephens is facing. He successfully sued the department in two previous wrongful termination cases involving detectives Jay Mehring and Jeff Harvey. Dunn successfully fought the termination of Harvey and Mehring by then-Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.

Both Harvey and Mehring are currently serving with the department.

"Scott Stephens doesn't want a lawsuit. He wants to be treated fairly and if that means they negotiate an early retirement package so that he departs from the City of Spokane Police Department, so be it. At the same time, he's not going to let the train run over him for conduct he did not engage in," Dunn said.

Dunn said Tuesday he didn't know the department was having Judge Hogan, not the department's own Internal Affairs unit, conduct the IA investigation until the news release came out from City Hall Monday.

A city spokesman said Tuesday the city decided to bring Judge Hogan in to conduct the IA investigation so that it would an objective analysis of the case. Condon said Judge Hogan will follow the same procedures as the police department's internal affairs unit in conducting his investigation.

Condon said the investigation should take about two days; Hogan's investigation is expected to be completed by the end of month.

When asked for comment, a police department spokesman said Chief Straub had no comment on this story.