Casper Police Chief Jim Wetzel is no longer serving as head of the department.
Interim City Manager Liz Becher decided not to renew Wetzel’s contract, two sources with knowledge of the change told the Star-Tribune on Friday.
The city manager’s office confirmed Wetzel’s immediate departure in a news release Friday afternoon, shortly after the Star-Tribune reported that his job was in jeopardy.
According to Wetzel’s contract, he was an at-will employee of the city and his employment could be terminated at any time by the city manager.
“The interim city manager has decided to take the police department in a different direction,” Councilwoman Amanda Huckabay said.
Wetzel declined to speak with a Star-Tribune reporter outside the police station Friday afternoon.
As a reporter approached Wetzel in a parking lot, he got into a vehicle with his wife, who smiled and swerved toward the reporter.
“I’m his wife. Don’t you talk to him,” she said after rolling down the window.
“Just go,” Wetzel said before the pair drove away.
Wetzel’s cellphone went straight to voicemail Friday afternoon, and he did not return a reporter’s call. The city manager’s office said Becher was in meetings and unavailable to comment Friday.
Casper police Captain Steve Schulz was appointed interim police chief, according to the news release.
Weeks of uncertainty
Problems within the police department became public in early April with the release of a survey by the local branch of the Fraternal Order of Police, which described a toxic environment created by leadership, including Wetzel. It also indicated officers had taken their concerns to city management and were met with indifference — a charge that officials in city government deny.
In the aftermath, some members of the City Council called for an outside investigation. City Manager V.H. McDonald announced his retirement two days later and then moved up his exit date at the request of Council leadership.
Less than two weeks later, 60 officers — or about two-thirds of the force — gave a vote of no confidence to Wetzel’s leadership. Huckabay called on Wetzel to resign, and Mayor Kenyne Humphrey alluded to it as well. Still, Wetzel said he planned to remain as the city’s top law enforcement official.
“I’m still standing here,” Wetzel said last week. “One day at a time.”
After McDonald retired, Becher said the city has been conducting its own investigation into personnel issues at the police department. That investigation was being handled by local attorney Judith Studer.
Two weeks ago, Becher said she would not make decisions regarding Wetzel’s employment until she received verified information regarding the accusations against him.
“We have to validate everything we do,” she said.
Assistant City Manager Tracey Belser said Friday she believed the city had received a draft of the investigation into personnel issues at the police department being conducted by Studer but that she had not viewed the results.
Becher said this week that she would be personally involved in reviewing any report produced by Studer.
In the interview last month, Becher said that despite her interim status, she felt empowered to make a leadership change at the police department if needed.
“I am prepared to take action if necessary,” Becher said. “I’ve been asked by Council about that, and I’m prepared.”
City Councilman Shawn Johnson said Becher informed Council leadership of her decision at a meeting on Thursday.
City Council’s role
While several City Council members have said they were comfortable with Becher taking action related to Wetzel, Councilman Charlie Powell called for restraint until Casper hired a permanent manager.
“We are about to go through a process of hiring a city manager and that city manager has a responsibility to evaluate all the department heads, including the police chief,” Powell said on Tuesday.
Johnson backed the interim manager on Friday.
“I trust her judgment on this,” he said. “Given the information that has come to light about everything that’s been going on in the police department, I think it was the right decision.”
Councilman Chris Walsh, who preceded Wetzel as chief, asked Becher last month to request an investigation by state authorities into leadership at the department due to the “potential criminal nature“ of the allegations.
But Becher said she could not request a state investigation at the behest of a single councilman, highlighting an aspect of Casper government that has proved controversial.
City Attorney Bill Luben has advised Council that only the city manager has the authority to handle departmental personnel issues, including police matters, and that the manager was legally prohibited from sharing information about personnel decisions with Council.
Luben said Council had almost no role to play in departmental issues and declined to say in an interview whether he believed members could offer advice or recommendations regarding department heads to the city manager.
Johnson and other Council members have chafed at that directive.
“I cannot imagine that it’s not ok for council to comment on a situation such as a city department crumbling from within!” Johnson wrote in an April email to his colleagues. “I do agree we need to be professional but it doesn’t mean we need to be blind, bound and gagged.”
Long history at department
Wetzel joined the police department in 1999. He worked as a patrol officer, an officer on a state narcotics task force, a patrol sergeant, a detective and a sergeant who oversaw detectives, in addition to serving with the Marines in Iraq.
He is a Casper native and a decorated lieutenant colonel in the Marine Corps Reserves. Wetzel served more than 20 years on active duty and reserves in the Marines.
Former city manager John Patterson promoted Wetzel from sergeant to chief in February 2014.