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Tacoma: Former cop on Citizen Review Panel confronts chief for “lying” about Amber Alert

Post by Lewis Kamb / The News Tribune on May 5, 2011 at 6:01 am |
May 5, 2011 11:56 am

The only former police officer on a citizen panel charged with reviewing the Tacoma Police Department’s policies and procedures said Wednesday that she told Police Chief Donald Ramsdell this week that she believes he “lied to the community” about why his department delayed issuing an Amber Alert in the Zina Linnik case.

Don Ramsdell, Tacoma Chief of Police

“I told the chief that I was disappointed in his behavior,” Trisha King Stargel said about the discussion with Ramsdell on Monday.

“I believe he lied to the community. I pointed out that if he had been one of his own police officers lying during an investigation, not only would he lose his job, but he’d lose his (state) police certification for up to five years.”

King Stargel’s comments to Ramsdell came on May 3, during this month’s regularly scheduled public meeting of Tacoma’s Citizen Review Panel. The  six-member, City Council-appointed body was formed in the aftermath of the Chief David Brame murder-suicide scandal.  Charged with providing advice to city officials on police policy issues, the review panel’s mission is  “to ensure transparency and accountability in the way that the City of Tacoma Police Department operates,” according to the city’s website.

King Stargel, a 24-year-cop-turned-Seattle University criminal justice lecturer who also works as a national police training consultant, said she requested that a discussion of Ramsdell’s actions in the Linnik case be put on the panel’s agenda this month.  Her request came after reports in The News Tribune recently revealed the chief and TPD spokesman Mark Fulghum had misled media outlets about why it took the department 12 hours to issue the alert following Linnik’s abduction in 2007.

(Part of the reason for the delay was because Fulghum fell back to sleep after being called and requested to issue the alert — a detail that no city official publicly revealed until two weeks ago.  Ramsdell and Fulghum had previously told reporters the alert hadn’t been issued faster because more police work needed to be done first.

Only after the TNT reported the true details about the delay did Ramsdell offer a public admission and  apology. City Manager Eric Anderson, with support from the council,  initially had said no further action needed to be taken.  A few days after the TNT requested Fulghum’s pay records for the day he delayed the alert — records that show Fulghum was on “standby” duty at the time — Anderson announced he had reprimanded Ramsdell, would conduct an internal investigation of Fulghum, and, at the council’s request, seek an outside evaluation of the entire Linnik investigation.)

On Monday,  both Ramsdell and Anderson appeared before the Citizen Review Panel to discuss the chief’s actions and recent discipline.  King Stargel said she felt compelled to raise the issue as a former officer and a Tacoma citizen.

“I made my feelings known to the chief,” she said. “And my main question was, `How do we, as a panel of citizens who are supposed to provide some review and advice for the department’s policies and (citizen) complaint procedures against officers — how do we move forward, after knowing he lied?”

“It’s a question I really put to the chief,” she added. “I believe it is his burden for telling us how to proceed.”

According to King Stargel and John LaFond, another panel member, Ramsdell responded that he was sorry that King Stargel felt the way she did. The chief added that he hoped to be judged on his behavior going forward, they said.

Anderson also told the panel he did not believe the chief lied, stating that his discipline of Ramsdell – a written reprimand  issued last week – is based on what Anderson described as not disclosing information that resulted in an unintentional breach of public trust.

Other panel members, including LaFond and chairman Michael West, did not believe questioning the chief’s veracity fell within the panel’s purview.

“We have a limited function,” said LaFond, a retired lawyer and law school professor for the University of Puget Sound and Seattle University. “Review of this individual case was not within the scope of that authority.”

LaFond added that, had the chief made a misrepresentation directly to the panel,  “I think that does bring (his actions) within the view of our response.  But we concluded there was no misrepresentation made to us.”

Unlike citizen police oversight bodies in many other mid- and large-sized U.S. cities, Tacoma’s Citizen Review Panel has no real oversight authority of individual officer disciplinary cases. Rather, the body serves solely as an advisory panel on general policy issues.  It can review complaint trends, policies and procedures and offer suggestions to the city manager, council and chief, but such advice doesn’t require action.

The panel’s work as it relates to the chief’s situation involved reviewing the changes the department drafted to its Amber Alert policies after the Linnik case, which ultimately prompted TPD’s first-ever alert.  Among other changes, TPD’s revised Amber Alert policy now allows any officer ranked sergeant or above to issue such an Amber Alert. Initially, only Fulghum had been authorized to do so.

“My general sense is that the chief has been very candid to us,” said LaFond, describing how Ramsdell has related to the panel about policy review issues during LaFond’s tenure on the board.

Still, King Stargel, the panel’s past chairwoman who is now in the final year of a three-year term, said she felt obligated to raise the issue.

“John LaFond felt that if the chief had not directly lied to the panel, then we didn’t have standing to question his veracity,” she said.  “I heartily disagree with that. We have standing as citizens in the community. We have every right to question the actions of our police chief.”

She also noted that West, the board’s current chairman, made a public statement that the board had no standing in the case and could not sanction the chief for his actions.

“I had no intention of asking for sanction,” said King Stargel, who worked as a cop in the Honolulu and Kent police departments. “But as a retired officer, I feel very strongly about character issues and I felt that it needed to be addressed. If we didn’t address it, I feel that we would be in error.”

When initially asked Wednesday to recount the panel’s discussion with Ramsdell on Monday, King Stargel directed a reporter to check the city’s website for an audio recording of the meeting’s minutes.  The web page for the panel, which provides access to archived audio recordings, states that such minutes “will be available 24-hours after being recorded.”

But, as of of this posting Thursday morning, the May 3 meeting minutes had not been posted online.  That surprised King Stargel.

“It’s my experience that the recording has been put up right away,” she said Wednesday.  “The (written) transcripts take some time, but I’ve been told that (posting) the audio files, that’s a fairly simple process. I don’t know why it’s not up there.”

LaFond also said Wednesday afternoon the audio minutes “should be up by now.”

Christian Clegg, a staffer in the city manager’s office who typically posts the minutes online, did not readily respond to an email or phone call left for him Wednesday afternoon.  City spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said later Wednesday he also was waiting to hear back from Clegg.

“I don’t know why those minutes haven’t been posted,” McNair-Huff said., “but we’ll try to get those to you soon.”

UPDATE: The audio file of the May 2 meeting is now posted on the review panel’s website.

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