City agrees to investigation of Hermiston Police Chief Coulombe

<p>Hermiston Police Chief Dan Coulombe.</p>

The Hermiston city manager agreed Monday to a demand by rank-and-file police officers and dispatchers to investigate what they allege is “extreme and constant mistreatment of employees” by Police Chief Dan Coulombe.

The Hermiston Police Association, “in an overwhelming vote,” called on City Manager Ed Brookshier, Mayor Bob Severson and the City Council to “remedy a critically important problem in your police department,” according to a letter delivered Friday to City Hall on behalf of the association.

The association, the bargaining unit for 25 police officers, alleges Coulombe “has engaged in repetitive, widespread harassment and bullying of employees.”

The four-page letter from association lawyer Jaime B. Goldberg of Portland suggests the city place Coulombe on administrative leave during the investigation. “Otherwise, we remain concerned that he may try to pressure members and influence the investigation.” The union also wants a say in selecting an “outside entity”?to examine Coulombe’s conduct.

Coulombe declined comment Monday on the allegations made by the association or the prospect of an investigation.

Goldberg, the association attorney, writes that:?“Due to the constant deplorable behavior from the chief of police, morale is at an all time low. The employees are constantly on their guard, in fear of the behavior of the police chief."

Monday, Brookshier said, “They stressed they wanted an investigation as soon as possible and, under the circumstances, we concur.”

He said the city is looking for an acceptable investigator. “In my opinion it will require someone with a unique skill set to do this,” as well as experience with police administration and human resources management.

Brookshier said the city does not plan to place Coulombe on full administrative leave, but may put him on a partial leave while an investigator interviews Hermiston police officers.

“It's just too early to know what that will look like,”?he said. ”I'm hopeful everyone will continue to do their jobs.”

A copy of the letter obtained by the Hermiston Herald claimed 90 percent of the union membership voted to demand the City Council start an investigation of Coulombe's conduct within one week.

The association claims the police chief publicly embarrassed employees, made unreasonable requests for confidential information regarding time off and caused confusion and anxiety among staff members.

The letter alleges that in the past 10 years, 25-28 employees have left the department due to ongoing harassment and micromanagement.

“For an agency of this size, this is an alarming number,” the letter asserts. “A fair and valid investigation will reveal that the aforementioned conduct is significant in the Police Department's loss of valuable employees.”

Backs the chief

Mayor Bob Severson called the situation unfortunate. “We’re taking it seriously, but as far as the chief of police, I am totally behind him 100 percent,” the mayor said Monday. “This is just going to have to play itself out and we don’t know where it’s going to go.”

Councilor Jackie Myers agreed with the decision to investigate the police officers’ claims, but considered Coulombe a very good, dedicated?chief of police. She said she was surprised by the claims made in the police association letter.

“We need to get to the bottom of what’s really going on here, if anything,” she said Monday. ”We need to get to the bottom of the facts to know if there are any concerns.”

The association cites three specific examples to support its complaints against Coulombe, all involving what it describes as his micromanagement.

In one case, he overrode a subordinate’s approval of an officer’s request for time off, in a second he demanded an officer return from family leave to attend a deposition, and in a third the chief blamed a misunderstanding about a family leave request on the officer involved.

Otherwise, the association generally describes a poor work environment, in which police officers “are always wondering if they are going to get written up, yelled at or reprimanded.”

Pendleton Police Sgt. Tod Keppinger said he left Hermiston Police Department in June 2006 after working five years under Coulombe.

“All I will say is that I didn’t like his management style, and that’s the main reason I left,” Keppinger said Monday. “I spent 20 years there, figured I would retire there. It didn’t work out that way.”

Molly Van Cleave, formerly an employee of the Hermiston Police Department for more than 25 years, said she saw the kind of behavior alleged in the union letter.

“He is verbally abusive to his people,” Van Cleave said. She said she began with the department as a data entry clerk and worked for four police chiefs before Coulombe.

“(Coulombe) micromanaged down to the point,” Van Cleave said. “He put out a memo we weren't even allowed to talk to City Council members unless he or a lieutenant was with us.”

Ellen Minardi, a volunteer at the Police Department from 2001 to 2004, described a “hostile environment”?there. “A lot of good cops went to Pendleton and he was the reason they left.”

“Everyone their jobs”

Brookshier also said daily police operations should not be affected by the investigation.

“We have a department of professionals,” Brookshier said.

Association President Karen Primmer declined comment on the letter, except to say “we have a timeline in play and we have to be fair about it. I want to make sure we're holding up our end.”

The association states that unless the city starts its investigation within a week, “we may be forced to share our concerns with the public, including the media.”

Primmer said she believed that the issue is “moving forward.”

Councilor Rod Hardin said he was concerned the allegations against Coulombe and an investigation would lead to a “trial of public opinion” that would breed speculation and rumor.

“It's being dealt with,” Hardin said.

Councilor Michael Calame was out of town on a work assignment when the letter was delivered and said he had not had an opportunity to review it. Councilor Joe Harn said he had not seen the full letter Monday.

“Since I haven't seen the entire letter I would decline to comment,” Harn said.

Coulombe, close to his 10th year in Hermiston, has been a finalist in three cities for the police chief position since 2008, including most recently in Richland.


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