Responding to criticism from his officers, Casper police Chief Jim Wetzel said Wednesday that he needs to make himself more available to his employees and is working to mend what he sees as “communication gaps.”
Casper’s mayor and members of the City Council called for an investigation into the police department last Tuesday after receiving copies of a survey from the local branch of the Fraternal Order of Police. The survey of a majority of the department’s employees said that Wetzel’s leadership created a toxic environment. That environment made officers afraid to do their jobs and spurred at least 20 employees to start looking for work elsewhere.
The survey also criticized city leadership for not acting after complaints about Wetzel were brought to the city manager’s office and human resources.
Those who responded to the survey — 14 civilian employees and 70 sworn officers — cited various reasons for the “working atmosphere that has become unbearable,” as described by the Fraternal Order of Police in a memo attached to the survey. Some mentioned a lack of support and appreciation from the administration. Others referenced micromanagement and confusion about new or changed policies. Some cited a fear of harsh punishment for relatively minor incidents or for questioning and criticizing leadership.
About a week after the survey became public, the chief discussed it with reporters at a daily department media briefing. Wetzel said he has already begun to address what he sees as miscommunication or a lack of communication in the department. He said he has started meeting with patrol teams to hear their concerns, has had a number of one-on-one conversations with officers and will make more open communication a higher priority in the future.
“I need to make myself more available to them,” he told reporters. “Clearly, they need to get to know me and I need to get to know them. That has to happen on a personal, one-to-one interaction basis so I can help fix the misperception that I don’t understand the challenges and the issues that they’re facing down there on patrol. Because I do believe that I do.”
Wetzel declined to answer whether he thought the survey was an accurate reflection of attitudes in the department but said that he is taking the concerns mentioned in the survey “at face value.”
“This is what I told (the patrol teams): Message received. I’ve taken it on the chin numerous times in numerous ways in the last three years,” he said. “This was one hell of a right hook, but message received.”
He acknowledged that the department is divided into two groups: those who are unhappy and those who refused to take the survey, thought it wasn’t appropriate or are generally happy with the current management. He said it’s his job as chief to start to mend that divide and make sure it doesn’t affect the department’s operations.
He said that in some cases he believes there’s nothing in the short term that he could say or do to change the minds of some of the employees who voiced concern in the survey.
“I could probably give them a million dollars and build them a castle up on the mountain and they’re still going to think I’m the most rotten individual ever to walk the face of the planet,” he said.
Instead, he said he’s going to focus on the “constructive” comments in the survey that can be discussed and solved. He later said he couldn’t think off the top of his head of specific comments that he found constructive.
“A lot of misinformation and misunderstanding shows that information is not getting down to (officers) in the proper light, in the proper context, with the proper details behind it,” he said. “So I’m going to start bringing that information directly to them from me to try and get some of the misunderstandings cleared up.”
Wetzel said that some of the criticisms of the department brought up in the survey focused on the updated department policy manual. However, he said that the large majority of the policy remains the same as the previous version. Many of the changes were suggested by a North Carolina attorney with whom former chief Chris Walsh contracted to review the old policy.
“The 2017 manual is more of a structural reorganization and consolidation of policies, if you will,” he said.
He also mentioned that there was misunderstanding about the new matrix used to guide internal discipline of officers and help discipline remain consistent. That matrix was also among the attorney’s suggestions, though the department did make minor changes.
“When it gets down to it, it’s not my matrix,” Wetzel said. “I guess it’s my matrix because I’m the chief and I said this is where we’re going, but I didn’t build the matrix from scratch.”
The chief told reporters the department would make available copies of the previous and current policy manuals so that they could be compared.
Since the survey became public, Wetzel said he has tried to remain professional and engage with the problem while “not get sucked into the emotional dust storm surrounding it.” While he’s disappointed in how things happened last week, he said, it’s his job as chief to move things forward and have candid discussions about the issues raised. He said he’s optimistic that positive change will come out of the controversy.
“Let’s have real conversations about this,” he said.
Wetzel reiterated his disappointment about how the survey was released to the public. He said that he has yet to receive a copy of the survey from the city or the local lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police and has only the copy provided to him by the Star-Tribune. He also said that he was never contacted by the local Fraternal Order of Police regarding the survey before or after it was released.
“I’ve been chief for three years and no one from the (Fraternal Order of Police) has ever come to speak to me and identified themselves as the FOP,” he said.
“It was a little disappointing as to how this all played out and not having an opportunity to speak to the FOP, but that is something I will continue to seek out and hopefully have a conversation with them,” he said.
When asked about communication with council members and city management, Wetzel said there hasn’t been much change and that many people are trying to make sense of the events of last week, including a fiery Council meeting last Tuesday. Since the release of the survey, a council member has announced his resignation citing personal reasons and City Manager V.H. McDonald announced he will retire in June.
“Last week was shocking,” he said. “I think everyone’s still a little shell-shocked as to how that all erupted and exploded on Tuesday. It’s only been a week.”