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'Jolting and Surprising' 

UPD officers air grievances with no-confidence vote in chief

click to enlarge HSU University Police Chief Donn Peterson at a campus vigil last year.

Photo By Mark McKenna

HSU University Police Chief Donn Peterson at a campus vigil last year.

Humboldt State University Chief of Police Donn Peterson was with Vice President of Administration and Finance Douglas Dawes on Sept. 30 when he first learned of his officer's no-confidence vote in his leadership through a press release from their union.

Speaking to the Journal, Peterson said he was so shocked at the news that he asked Dawes to finish reading the press release for him. He said that while it's clear his officers have strong feelings about him, he's grateful this is out in the open and he's now focused on working toward solutions.

"I'm clearly disappointed with the news but I have a great deal of respect for the seriousness of the matter. It deserves to be taken seriously, investigated thoroughly, and that should be a transparent process. The public deserves to know and I'm committed to being open and candid," Peterson said. "To find out like this (in a press release) was jolting and surprising, but my first thought was, 'Fantastic, let's talk about it in a transparent and clear way; let's get it out all on the table,'"

On Sept. 30, the Statewide University Police Association (SUPA), the union that represents HSU police officers, issued a press release to announce UPD's officers no-confidence vote, which is symbolic, a public statement of dissatisfaction with the chief. According to the release, nine of UPD's 10 officers supported the vote, with the 10th abstaining.

"We've exhausted all of our options, [releasing the press release] is our way of bringing it to light," officer Billy Kijriopas, HSU's SUPA union director, said.

Kijsriopas said UPD officers took the no-confidence vote a month ago and also filed an "unfair practice charge" with the California Public Employee Relations Board, the state agency responsible for enforcing collective bargaining laws. In the press release, the officers accused Peterson of violating labor laws, manipulating crime statistics and excessive absenteeism, as well as creating a hostile work environment, including making racist remarks.

In an interview with the Journal, Kijsriopas couldn't specifically cite which labor law Peterson is accused of violating but he told the Lost Coast Outpost the violation came when Peterson posted "an anti-labor letter" in officers' work area.

The letter, which Peterson posted on a bulletin board June 21, 2016, came in response to the results of a SUPA union leadership survey in which officers throughout the state anonymously rated their commanding officers, with the results made public. In UPD's case, the survey painted a bleak picture.

With officers asked to rate both work experiences and command staff on a scale from 1 to 5, with 1 meaning strongly disagree and 5 indicating strongly agree, UPD Lt. Melissa Hansen was rated not satisfactory, scoring a 2.11 out of 5. UPD officers' comments were critical of Hansen's leadership.

"Reports indicate she lacks integrity and fails to display an appropriate amount of concern for her officers. The narrative responses also report that she exhibits unprofessional behavior by working the minimum amount of hours and by disregarding department attire," a summary of the comments states.

As for Peterson — who scored just below average at 2.9 — officers focused on his commitment to the department. "Narrative comments criticized Chief Peterson's lack of availability and indicated that he does not appear committed to the department," the summary states.

In response, Peterson posted the blistering letter, a copy of which Kijsriopas provided to the Journal, saying it "clearly conveyed hostility" toward the officers for "voicing their concerns" through a valuable feedback tool.

While not necessarily "anti-labor," the letter is a vituperative response to what Peterson considered an anonymous attack.

"I am sad for you who feel this is a valid means of expressing opinion," he wrote. "To those of you who wear the uniform and smile in my face while making the comments I found in this survey, I know who you are, too. If you aren't happy here and would like to explore opportunities elsewhere, I support you and encourage you to do so. And while I stand with you as well, you are weak links and I pity you for being one of those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Speaking to the Journal, Peterson, who was hired in January of 2015, said that he was new to HSU and the union when he wrote the letter and didn't know he was violating union rules by posting it, adding that he owns up to both what he said and how he said it. Peterson said he was most upset by officers speaking critically in the survey of Hansen.

"There was toxic masculinity and I don't stand for that or bigotry," Peterson said. "And to do that anonymously, I thought I was holding people accountable and calling out disgusting behavior, but then someone told me, 'Hey, you violated our rule, we don't do that here,' and I realized I messed up."

After the letter incident, Peterson said he called a meeting with the department and apologized to everyone, adding that he was shocked and dismayed that, as the incident happened three years ago and was something he thought the department had addressed and moved on from, the officers stated it in the press release.

Peterson's marks improved for the 2018 leadership survey, in which he scored 3.15.

"All officers believe that he does a good job of leading by example," the summary states.

Hansen, meanwhile, scored even lower in 2018, with a score of 1.81. General comments in the summary included: "Is a negative influence on the department and seems to be very divisive. Seems unwilling to communicate face-to-face with officers. Seems more focused on making her job easier than on supporting officers. Multiple comments that she is biased in her decision making and leadership."

Regarding the allegation that Peterson manipulated crime statistics, Kijsriopas said UPD changed the way it classifies certain unsolved cases, logging them as "suspended pending further leads" as opposed to "open" or "unsolved," which the officer says he considers less than honest.

Peterson said that change came at the suggestion of Sun Ridge Systems, the records management system UPD uses, adding that the department has had many meetings about the system but this was the first time he'd heard officers' frustrations with it.

"[Manipulating statistics] is a felony," Peterson said. "That's absolutely false. I don't get anything from that. And as I read that, I was confused and taken aback."

As far as the hostile workplace allegations, Kijsriopas, who is a first-generation Asian American, said three employees told him that during a sergeant's meeting Peterson was frustrated with Kijsriopas and allegedly commented on his facial hair, saying, "Who does he think he is? Kung-Fu, or something?"

Peterson, who previously served as vice president of the Eureka branch of the NAACP, said he was flummoxed, dismayed and shocked when he read Kijsriopas' allegations, adding that he never made the comment, though he said he did talk to Kijsriopas' sergeant about the officer's facial hair.

"We have grooming standards," Peterson said. "I didn't single him out. I took his sergeant aside and had a private meeting and talked to them about our grooming standards. Later on, [Kijsriopas] had a fuller beard and, again, I talked to his sergeant and told them to hold him accountable."

Kijsriopas also said a black employee told him that during a meeting with Peterson, the chief began scolding the employee, and then allegedly quoted a verse from the bible along the lines of, "A slave is beholden to his master."

Peterson flatly denied saying this. "Anyone who knows me knows I don't talk politics or religion in a professional setting or during work," he said.

Asked about the absenteeism alleged in the press release, Peterson said he was asked in January of 2018 by the union to represent CSU management in an ongoing collective bargaining process and has since traveled out of town to attend 10 meetings. And he said he uses his earned vacation time to visit family.

"Sure, when I'm not working and I've earned my time off, I take short periods of time to go visit my family and I'm unapologetic for it," he said. "I want to be there for my twin girls, I want to be present in their lives as much as I can be but there is never a time when HSU is left unattended."

He added that he and Hansen coordinate which days they take off. The Journal requested data from HSU detailing the number of days Peterson has spent away from campus in 2018 and 2019 but the university declined to provide it, saying it's a "personnel matter."

On the heels of the press release announcing the union's no-confidence vote, Dawes, HSU vice president of administration and finance, released a statement indicating the university takes all employee concerns seriously, has "high expectations" for UPD employees and "remains committed to helping them be effective."

While Kijsriopas stated in the press release that "it's past time" UPD had a new chief, Peterson said he's proud of the hard work and dedication the men and women of UPD show daily. He said he's received their message and looks forward to continuing to serve HSU and its students for a long time to come.

"I've got work to do, I've got blind spots," Peterson said. "I'm a flawed, imperfect human being who makes mistakes, but I want to learn from those mistakes. And when I mess up, I own it. I don't presume [the officers] are coming from a bad place, it's more like you spoke, we heard. Now, let's get us to a better place."

Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the Journal. She prefers she/her pronouns and can be reached at 442-1400, extension 317, or iridian@northcoastjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter @IridianCasarez.

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Iridian Casarez

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Iridian Casarez is a staff writer at the North Coast Journal.

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