Lt. Joe Walker didn't know if he wanted to participate in the independent investigation of Frank Straub, the Spokane police chief who was forced to resign last September.
He was worried about retaliation and didn't trust the city to protect him. Ultimately, it was the city council's vocal involvement — triggered by the media reporting that some key witnesses wouldn't be participating — that convinced him to talk to investigator Kris Cappel anyway.
But, man, is he glad he decided to participate.
“Just seeing how she put everything together, it made me feel good that other people saw the same things,” Walker says.
The report laid it all out there: Testimony after testimony from cops who'd experienced abuse, harassment
and retaliation from Straub, just like he had. It wasn't just him, in other words. He wasn't paranoid or seeing black helicopters or being overly sensitive — his opinion about the chief was broadly shared. Last week, the Inlander
laid out the numerous
occasions, according to Cappel's report, where city officials were warned about Straub's behavior before the mayor finally asked him to resign.
Many of those warnings came from Walker. He'd gone to HR Director Heather Lowe or Asst. City Attorney Erin Jacobson and explicitly laid out serious concerns and urged them to make sure that City Hall was aware of the problems. But nothing changed.
Walker's life under the management of Frank Straub was hell.
It was so bad that Walker, who'd been promoted from lieutenant to commander by Straub, self-demoted to captain, then self-demoted again
back to lieutenant by January 2014. Cappel's report indicates that made Straub furious.
He called Walker a “quitter,” told him the mayor and Sanders had no respect for him, and that he’d “shit himself” by self-demoting.
Straub began moving Walker from position to position. Walker says he would show up to work and find all his stuff moved out into the hall. It happened so often, he says, he had to keep his personal things in a box in his car.
Lowe says Straub wanted to discipline Walker, without a reason.
"There was nothing to corroborate the discipline," Lowe told Cappel. "There was nothing in writing, there was no statement, there was nothing. And that’s going to be challenged all day long and overturned."
Cappel noted, critically, that Lowe didn't seem all that concerned about the issue of retaliation.
“It looked pretty clear to me, based on that exchange, that he was willing to make shit up, just to discipline me,” Walker says.
A decade ago, Walker was tangled up
with the Otto Zehm scandal — where a cop who'd been well-liked in the department went to jail for beating an unarmed mentally disabled janitor and then lying about it. Asked what was worse for morale — the Zehm scandal or Straub — Walker says they felt about equivalent.
The difference was that the impact of Straub was internal. The last few months have continued to highlight serious rifts and conflict among factions of police leadership, whether with the debate over Capt. Brad Arleth's choice to move furniture against orders
or the frustration over recent promotions
But on Straub, the testimony is largely the same: His management style was abusive, profane, paranoid and capricious.
Craig Meidl, who Condon announced today was the new police chief, told Cappel that he didn't trust Straub to be consistent or truthful.
"I got to the point where I felt like what I said in one meeting wasn't the same as what was said in other meetings," he said. "I felt I was put in a position where two different things were said and I couldn't — I couldn't say one thing when I knew another thing to be the actual case."
He said Straub's anger at his executive staff "seemed to be a fairly regular occurrence" and could be directed at anyone on his executive team.
"I was in a position where I either had to support some of the untruths that were being said in those meetings as his second and sacrifice my integrity or I had to make a stand," Meidl said. Ultimately, he demoted himself all the way down to lieutenant, at the cost to himself of over $40,000 a year.
Director of Strategic Initiatives Tim Schwering told the investigator that the former chief "was always concerned that . . . people were out to get him . . . And if people were out to get him, they needed to be dealt with."
Capt. Brad Arleth went further, suggesting that internal division and conflict was intentionally created by
Straub. "He was playing divide and conquer with the executive staff while – while trying to make people think that he was just watching out for their best interests," Arleth said.
Former Interim Police Chief Rick Dobrow, not always a fan of Arleth, said the same thing.
"I find out, all of us did, subsequent to his departure, that he was playing us against one another," Dobrow said.
Straub would say something insulting about then-Assistant Chief Selby Smith to Dobrow, and then say something highly insulting about Dobrow to Smith.
"He was never happy," Dobrow said. "And his way of lashing out was to be brutally critical of others that he felt really didn't live up to his expectations."
Others were pushed out of the department because of the abuse. Lt. Bill Drollinger questioned one of Straub's decisions and found himself tossed out of Straub's office, cut out of decisions regarding the police academy, and assigned to the night shift. Under pressure from Straub, he retired early.
After Sgt. Sean Nemec questioned why he was passed over for a promotion to lieutenant, Nemec told Cappel Straub called him a “despicable excuse for a sergeant” and threatened to "have his ass" if he ever complained about not getting a promotion again. Then, Nemec was transferred to swing shift.
Contacted for Straub's side of the story, his attorney, Mary Schultz, brushes off the words of Walker and others. She says that abusive words aren't excusable, but asks the media to consider why
he blew up. She says he has trying to fix a broken department and was frustrated by the lack of willpower from the city.
"He wasn’t allowed to be a police chief... His efforts to try to change were conveyed to the mayor and rejected — he ended up with what he had," Schultz said. "He did not have the opportunity or the ability to really do anything to change the makeup."
Condon says that he didn’t learn of the chief’s abusive behavior until April of 2015.
Yet by February of 2014, the Condon administration had watched every single member of Straub's original executive team — except for Monique Cotton, who would later accuse him of sexual harassment
— be demoted, self-demote or transfer. But since Straub was hired as a change agent, to shake up the insular culture of the department, many of the big staffing changes were dismissed.
"Kris, I have no recollection of a thought going through my mind that he is punishing people," Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley told Cappel. "I did have in my mind that he was creating a really hot environment in which people were opting out."
Walker scoffs at the idea that his team just couldn't hack it. He says he spent seven years on the SWAT team, where he's been through brutally long hours and punishing conditions. He wonders if the people he'd told about Straub didn't forward the issues to the mayor because "they didn't want to be the one to say that his pick was completely out of control."
Cappel's report ultimately concluded that it was a letter from Straub's executive team and the Lieutenants and Captains Association that triggered Condon to force Straub's resignation, not anything specifically related to Monique Cotton. (The report did not find anything to substantiate Cotton's claim.) Late Friday, the Lieutenants and Captains Association sent another letter, chiding Condon for not acknowledging that he and his staff “failed to act for two years.”
The letter called on Condon and his team to “recognize their failures and take actions to assure that this unacceptable situation will not be repeated."
On Friday, the Inlander
specifically asked Condon if the report showed that communication between the mayor and his employees needed to be improved since Condon didn't know about the concerns many of them had expressed. Was this something he should
have known about? Condon didn't answer directly, instead highlighting the sheer complexity his administration faces when responding to complaints, whether verbal or written.
"As I'm talking to our employees, as we come out of this, looking at ways to move forward, I want to be clear: It's complex. There are conflicting interpretations and intent of the different laws — whether it be [public record requests] or human resources. Even a change now in Human Resource law that is as recent as 2015," Condon said. "The other issue is you're going to have to ask, in
respect to attorneys — they are bound in
confidentiality and what does that mean?"
On Monday, after Condon named Meidl his police chief, the Inlander
pressed again on what Condon would do to make sure he's hearing any future concerns.
"Well, they make those concerns very known to me from time to time," Condon said, before referencing the Association's letter. "Chief Meidl has a huge commitment to his community and is willing to learn from the critical feedback from his community."
Walker, for his part, believes Condon needs to reckon with the damage that has already been done.
"This thing has created a long-lasting morale killer. It’s going to be very difficult to get through this," Walker says. "I don’t think to this day he realizes what his inaction caused."
Here's the full letter from the Lieutenants and Captains Association, emphasis added.
The Spokane Police Department Lieutenants and Captains Association (Association) as a collective group, formally brought forward concerns directly to Mayor Condon and City Administrator Sanders regarding the misconduct of Frank Straub in August of 2015. During the previous two years, individual Association Members and other SPD employees brought forward concerns to Human Resources, City Legal, the City Administrator and the Mayor himself regarding unacceptable interactions with Straub.
In review of the Cappel report, it is very concerning to the Association that Mayor Condon knew or should have known through Human Resources, City Legal and the City Administrator about the widespread employee mistreatment that was occurring by Straub to SPD employees, however failed to take appropriate action.
As the result of the City’s failure to protect its employees, many SPD employees experienced a hostile work environment consisting of demotions, retaliatory transfers, resignations, threats and ongoing harassment.
Our membership is concerned that Mayor Condon has failed to grasp the extent of his failure. In an “All City” email dated 7-28- 16 reference this issue, Mayor Condon wrote, “You should know that our actions all along have been guided by one thing: protecting the wellbeing of employees and ensuring that they are treated fairly and appropriately. Our focus must remain on you and your ability to do your job in a safe, respectful environment.”
There is no acknowledgment that Mayor Condon and his staff failed to act for two years when concerns were repeatedly being brought forward, and now his apology is simply to blame his lack of action on one of the city employees he should have been protecting.
Our position is Mayor Condon and City Administrator Sanders failed in their roles as leaders in our city. As the supervisors of the Police Chief, they are personally responsible to assure that Straub’s conduct conformed to the City Harassment Policy. They failed to conduct appropriate investigations when advised that Straub was mistreating employees.
Moving forward our membership requests Mayor Condon and his staff recognize their failures and take actions to assure that this unacceptable situation will not be repeated.
In closing, the members of the Association remain committed to the City of Spokane, the citizens we serve and continuing to make SPD the best it can be. We are proud to serve the citizens of Spokane and they deserve our best efforts.