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Jim Wetzel

Casper police chief Jim Wetzel listens Oct. 18 as victims of sexual abuse talk about their experiences during a Casper City Council meeting. His management style has come under fire among many current and former officers.

Dan Cepeda, Star-Tribune

Dozens of Casper police officers say they are likely to look for new jobs due to what they described as a toxic environment created by department leadership and city indifference to their concerns, according to a recent survey of the majority of the department and interviews with seven current and former officers.

“For approximately three years, employees of the Casper Police Department have suffered under a failed leadership,” the local branch of the Fraternal Order of Police wrote in a cover letter attached to the survey. The letter states that numerous officers and civilian employees shared their criticism of department operations with the organization after repeatedly approaching city and department leadership and feeling ignored.

Much of the criticism was directed toward Chief Jim Wetzel, who has led the department since February 2014. Wetzel’s style of management has created a culture of fear within the police department that has had a chilling effect on officers’ work, one current officer said. Investigators and patrol officers are afraid to do their jobs aggressively because they fear they will be written up for small discrepancies or for policies that did not previously exist.

“I get calls almost weekly from officers and supervisors, and I’ve never seen such misery and fear of doing their job,” one former officer said.

City Councilman Chris Walsh, who served as police chief before Wetzel, and Mayor Kenyne Humphrey called for an investigation Tuesday into the department.

“This appears to be a breakdown in our entire city management system,” Walsh said.

In an interview Tuesday with the Star-Tribune, Wetzel said he had never heard the vast majority of the criticisms leveled against him in the survey. He said change is difficult and described the atmosphere within the department as a “clash of cultures” as he works to move the department in a different direction.

“When you seek to adjust or shift a prior culture, it’s expected that will come with resistance from those who don’t want to shift,” he said.

Seven current and former officers representing a variety of ranks throughout the department and with more than 100 years of combined law enforcement experience spoke to the Star-Tribune for this story. They all requested anonymity because they said they were afraid speaking out would affect their current work or future job prospects.

All of the officers bemoaned what they saw as a degradation of the department’s effectiveness. One pointed to the recent criticism that the department has faced over how it handles sexual assault investigations as a symptom.

“Things are seriously a mess in that department,” one former officer said. “Something needs to happen before something seriously bad happens.”

More than 20 current officers — of the department’s total of 99 — are actively searching for new jobs outside the department or are contemplating leaving law enforcement altogether because of the change in the department’s leadership, former and current officers said.

Of the 84 people who took the survey, including both sworn officers and civilian staff, 49 said they were extremely or very likely to look for another job.

“At first we were all trying to help steer the ship,” a current officer who is looking for another job said. “Now we’re all just putting on our life jackets and waiting to crash into the iceberg.”

Survey results

A total of 84 officers and civilian staff out of 115 took the survey conducted by the Casper branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, a nationwide law enforcement organization, between Feb. 14 and March 20. In the memo attached to the survey, the organization explained that it initiated the survey after a “steadily growing” number of officers approached them.

Some of the survey results are positive, including the fact that the majority of the officers feel they are well-paid and that supervisors’ expectations are realistic. However, more than 65 percent of respondents said the administration’s expectations are not realistic at all and about 40 percent said they were extremely or very dissatisfied with their job.

The chief said he knew the order was conducting the survey and supported it. Wetzel said he was disappointed that he didn’t receive a copy of the survey before it was made public.

After a series of charts, individual comments to each question are listed. In those comments, a number of officers directly called for the chief to step down.

“Three years of Chief Wetzel has hurt this department and city very badly,” one officer wrote. “The department is very young and inexperienced due to Chief Wetzel’s decisions.”

“I love being a cop,” another wrote. “I love helping people in Casper and I love catching criminals. But under this administration I absolutely hate this job.”

The dissatisfaction is causing the large number of officers to look for other jobs, which could create a public safety issue, according to the Fraternal Order of Police memo.

“This is a staggering number, which would undoubtedly leave the City of Casper in a crisis, if it comes to fruition,” the memo states. “Quantitatively, you should also realize that in many instances, the Casper Police Department already operates at minimum staffing levels, and would not be able to absorb the departure of personnel described above.”

In the meantime, many of the officers said they don’t feel they can do their job effectively because they don’t feel they have the support of their administration and are afraid of being written up.

“You got a department that doesn’t care anymore and they won’t go out of their way to work,” one former officer said.

“This department is broken, when the majority of the department has lost faith in the administration as a whole and the city council, human resources and city manager do NOTHING but play passive,” one survey respondent wrote. “The citizens deserve better policing—not intel gathering or spy wear but community interaction, victims of crimes deserve better investigations, and our officers deserve better from our administration and city management.”

Quick rise in rank

Former city manager John Patterson promoted Wetzel from sergeant to chief in February 2014. At the ceremony, Wetzel acknowledged that it was “unconventional” for a sergeant to be promoted to chief, bypassing lieutenants and captains.

Wetzel is a Casper native and a decorated lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves. He has served more than 20 years on active duty and reserves in the Marines. Patterson said the only reason Wetzel had not become a lieutenant was because of his time spent with the Marines.

Wetzel joined the police department in 1999, and between time spent in the Marines, he worked as a patrol officer, an officer on a state narcotics task force, a patrol sergeant, a detective and a sergeant who oversaw the detectives.

In a phone call with Patterson five days after his appointment, Wetzel acknowledged that a few officers were “scrambling to try and come up with funds to, as you said, vote with their feet,” alluding to officers finding money to buy out the rest of their time toward retirement. A recording of the conversation became public after a records request by the Star-Tribune.

Patterson then said the departures would allow Wetzel to hire new people, to which Wetzel responded:

“It’s going to be a particular brand, those who are leaving, that I sadly have to say are not going to be impacting ... their departure will not be impacting the forward movement of the department. Sadly enough, but so be it.”

In a later interview, the chief clarified that he meant that he planned to make changes to the department regardless of who stayed and who left.

But current and recently departed officers said that the sudden departure of much of the department’s most experienced officers has damaged the agency’s effectiveness. Four of the former officers who spoke to the Star-Tribune said they left the department because of Wetzel.

“I just decided it wasn’t worth it to stay and put up with all of that,” one former sergeant said. “Police work is hard enough.”

Since Wetzel took charge of the department, a total of six sergeants, two lieutenants and two captains have left the department. While not all of those officers left due to Wetzel, there wasn’t a similar exodus of top-level officers after Walsh became chief in March 2011, according to department rosters. During his nearly three years as chief, only one lieutenant left.

Excluding detectives, about half of all officers have less than six years on the force, according to a Star-Tribune analysis of the department’s roster as of Jan. 1, 2017.

Some former officers said they were sidelined between the time they announced they were leaving and the time they actually left. They attended required meetings but were not assigned tasks and were left to twiddle their thumbs.

“I just sat in there most days and did absolutely nothing,” said one former command staff officer. “I just stared at the walls.”

The sudden loss in experienced officers has forced the early promotion of less-qualified officers to supervisory roles, current and former officers said. And now new officers are often missing the mentorship of officers with 15 or 20 years of experience.

“Guys are being promoted to positions of authority who have no respect among the line guys and don’t know how to do the job,” one former officer said.

“We left a vacuum that they have not been able to fill,” said a former sergeant with more than 20 years of experience.

Wetzel acknowledged there was “no substitute for experience,” but doesn’t think the relative inexperience of his department is affecting the quality of its police work. He said his department remains the best in Wyoming and that the hiring and training process creates effective officers.

“Because we’re doing excellent work,” he said.

City knowledge

City management and human resources is well aware of the problem within the department and has done little or nothing to fix the situation, all the current and former officers said. The memo from the Fraternal Order of Police echoes those concerns.

Almost the entire command staff — captains and lieutenants — met individually with City Manager V.H. McDonald in a series of meetings between March and May of 2016 to discuss a lengthy document outlining their concerns with Wetzel’s leadership, former officers said.

“It wasn’t a personality thing, it was a document that specifically pointed to policy decisions that were being made that were in direct conflict with policies or rules and regulations,” one former command staff officer said.

McDonald listened to their concerns but ultimately did nothing and recommended that everyone try to get along, the officers told the Star-Tribune.

“V.H. just blew it under the rug,” another former officer said. “He had a vote of no confidence from the entire command staff. But V.H. didn’t do anything about it.”

“V.H. and Tracey (Belser, assistant city manager) don’t have the strength to confront him about the way things have been going because they don’t know what to do if they do have to get rid of him,” one former officer said. “I honestly don’t understand why they’ve let this slide so long. It’s going to become a public safety issue before it’s solved.”

The city manager’s office hadn’t received a copy of the survey, Belser said Tuesday afternoon. She declined to comment but noted the city is planning an external review of the department.

“Ironically, now the city’s going to spend ($53,000) to see what the problem is when they’ve known for the past 10 months,” the former command staff officer said, referring to the city manager’s talks with command staff. “We gave them their answer 10 months ago.”

The memo from the Fraternal Order of Police also stated that department employees have “attempted to resolve their concerns through a logical progression of steps.” It also outlined the meetings in spring 2016 between command staff, McDonald and Wetzel.

“Sadly, approximately one year after this meeting, there has been no communication, no follow-up, and most importantly, no resolution,” the memo states.

McDonald was out of the office Tuesday. He responded to a text message informing him of the survey but did not call a reporter for an interview.

Humprey, the mayor, said Tuesday afternoon that the council could serve as a resource for officers or civilian staff who had criticism of the department and felt it wasn’t being heard.

“Not one single officer better be reprimanded, fired or anything for speaking up in the survey,” she said.

Follow crime and courts reporter Elise Schmelzer on Twitter @eliseschmelzer

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