Serious stuff. Anyone who reads the Hermiston Police Association demand for a “fair and valid investigation” into the actions of Police Chief Dan Coulombe knows it is a matter that requires the complete attention of city leaders.

This can not be treated as business as usual. It is not going to go away quietly.

Understand, we’re not here today to condemn or convict the chief. Coulombe deserves the full benefit of an investigation into the charges and a chance to speak his side.

We also commend City Manager Ed Brookshier for agreeing to commence an investigation as soon as possible.

But if Hermiston’s leaders allow anything less than a complete and impartial investigation to take place, if they allow inside influences to have any effect on the probe, they will be failing to fulfill their responsibilities to the citizens of Hermiston.

The charges leveled in the letter to city leaders are startling. The association says Coulombe has “engaged in repetitive, widespread harassment and bullying of employees.” It asks that the chief be placed on administrative leave during the investigation, and it asks that current and former employees be interviewed, as well as officers from other local agencies.

Understand, this is not normal procedure for a police union. For its members to take such a step ? and for it to be an “overwhelming majority” ? is a drastic move, one that sends a strong message that something is amiss in the department.

Already, some council members and city officials have quietly suggested that the request for an investigation is a “negotiating ploy.” The association is currently involved in contract negotiations, and it’s being hinted that the letter is simply part of those negotiations.

That doesn’t make sense. The union has no monetary gain to be made from criticizing its chief. 

Instead, this is a request that Hermiston leaders look closely at a problem that officers say has been festering for years. It is a plea for assistance in what patrol officers and dispatchers see as a problem with no other remedy.

Monday morning, some city councilors expressed surprise at the association’s charges, saying they had no inkling that such problems might exist.

We can only say we are surprised at their surprise.

Remember, it’s been only a few months since a member of the Hermiston Police Department filed suit against the city and Coulombe, citing similar charges. While certainly a more complex case,  the suit claims that Doug Smith was subjected to “pain, suffering, anger, anxiety, mental anguish, humiliation and loss of reputation.” 

Surely they can’t have forgotten about that lawsuit so quickly.

Neither was the lawsuit the first such indication of problems.

In December 2007, Hermiston Municipal Judge Keith Kirkwood announced his resignation. Part of the reason Kirkwood gave for his resignation was that he was routinely questioned and criticized by Coulombe.

In that same month, the wife of a former officer sent a letter to the editor of the Herald, claiming that her husband, a 20-year veteran of the force, resigned because of “unbearable working conditions.” She called Coulombe’s style “threatening and belittling.”

Hermiston councilors should remember those incidents.

The charges by the association also seem to have emboldened former employees,  of which there seem to be many. According to the association letter, at least 25 people have left the department during Coulombe’s tenure.

If that’s true, it’s too many.

But what quickly became clear Monday, as the news of the letter spread, is that a number of former employees appear ready to have their say. If the investigation proceeds as it should, they’ll get their chance.

This morning, two things are of the utmost importance:

One, that a complete and impartial investigation be conducted. As council member Rod Hardin told me, “This shouldn’t be tried in the jury of public opinion.”

Agreed. But neither should it be conducted out of a public light. A police chief is one of the most visible employees a city can have; when he is accused of any wrongdoing, it is incumbent upon city leaders to make sure the investigation is thorough.

The second thing to remember is this: It’s quite likely that this issue will spread farther than Hermiston and Umatilla County. The city that found itself on the front page of the state’s largest newspaper celebrating its growth may find itself in the public eye for an entirely different matter.

How the council and City Manager Ed Brookshier deal with the issue will be a reflection on the entire city.

Leaders’ reactions under normal circumstances are seldom remembered. They are taken as a matter of course.

But how they react in times of duress, how they handle topics of a controversial nature ? these are the moments that will be in residents’ memories long after those council terms have expired.

Know of something we need to be reporting? A piece of news you’d like to see in the Herald? Drop me a note at nwoelk@hermistonherald.com or call me at 541-564-4533.

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