Friday, October 29, 2021

Council to Discuss Police Chief Post in Closed Session as Text Investigation Comes to a Head

Posted By on Fri, Oct 29, 2021 at 2:56 PM

click to enlarge Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson. - PHOTO BY MARK MCKENNA
  • Photo by Mark McKenna
  • Eureka Police Chief Steve Watson.
The Eureka City Council will meet in closed session Tuesday to discuss how to proceed in the wake of Police Chief Steve Watson’s announced retirement and a case of anticipated litigation.

Watson announced Wednesday he would be stepping down from the position he’s held for four years at the end of November. With the department already facing a staffing crisis — officers are working 12.5-hour shifts and mandatory overtime with a quarter of EPD’s officer positions vacant — and a sergeant and a captain on administrative leave pending investigations, Watson’s departure date leaves the council with a tight timeline to plan for the department’s leadership, both in the immediate and long-term.

City Manager Miles Slattery said Tuesday’s closed session discussion with the council will focus both on a process by which the city will appoint an acting or interim chief to take over upon Watson’s departure and getting the council’s direction on how it wants to proceed with recruiting and hiring a permanent replacement.

Both Slattery and Watson were adamant in comments to the Lost Coast Outpost that the announced retirement has “absolutely” nothing to do with an outside investigation into a text messaging scandal among a unit of officers that spilled into public view after screenshots of the messages were leaked to the Sacramento Bee earlier this year. But the announcement comes just weeks after the city received the highly anticipated investigative report and, with that report still enmeshed in legal review, Watson may vacate his post before disciplinary decisions are made and the report’s findings are made public, to the extent they can be.

The department has been roiled by controversy since the Sacramento Bee published its explosive report in March, detailing a host of vulgar, misogynistic, violent and dehumanizing text messages sent between a group of officers led by Sgt. Rodrigo Reyna-Sanchez. (The Journal later confirmed the authenticity of the texts leaked to the Bee through California Public Records Act, which unearthed additional incendiary messages.) In the article’s immediate aftermath, Watson placed Reyna-Sanchez and officer Mark Meftah (who has since left the city’s employment) on leave, and and hired the Bay Area law firm Sacks, Ricketts and Case LLP to conduct an independent investigation. EPD Capt. Patrick O’Neill was also placed on administrative leave in May, pending the findings of an investigation, though it’s unclear if that’s related to or independent of the texting investigation.

According to billing records, Sacks Ricketts and Case had spent more than 360 hours on the investigation as of the end of August. Slattery told the Journal the city received the final, nearly 200-page draft of the investigation report “two or three weeks ago,” complete with attachments, recordings and other supporting materials. (The city had received a draft of the final report a bit earlier, Slattery said.)

While Slattery said that he, Watson and City Attorney Bob Black have reviewed the document, it’s also being reviewed by outside counsel, the Sacramento law firm Liebert Cassidy Whitmore.

There are two aspects to that review, Slattery said. First, he said the firm is reviewing the investigative report simply to make sure its findings are supported by the evidence collected during the investigation. Then, Slattery said, the city has provided the firm with potential disciplinary actions the city is looking at taking based on the report’s findings, and Liebert Cassidy Whitmore is reviewing those to advise the city about whether they are legally defensible, based on the report',s findings and applicable state law.

From his perspective, Slattery said Sacks, Ricketts and Case’s report is “extremely comprehensive” and the firm did “a very thorough job.”

The city manager said he could not offer a timeline for the legal review to be completed, saying it's important the city be thorough, intoning he’s already been frustrated with the pace of the process. Asked if he expected the legal review to be complete in days, weeks or months, Slattery said, “I would be even more frustrated if it were months but I couldn’t put a date on it.”

If disciplinary action is taken based on the investigation, Slattery said he, as the police chief’s boss, would be consulted by whoever is helming EPD.

Slattery said the city will endeavor to be as transparent as possible about the report and its findings but until the review is complete he’s extremely limited in what he can say.

“I’d love to be able to speak more freely but, unfortunately, I can’t,” he said. “But we’ve taken this extremely seriously and want to make sure we do what’s right.”

Watson did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
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Thadeus Greenson

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Thadeus Greenson is the news editor of the North Coast Journal.

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