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How an off-duty incident cost an EPD officer his badge

It was about 1 a.m. on Monday, Sept. 22, 2014, and then Eureka Police Sgt. Brian Stephens was in the briefing room at the department's headquarters on C Street when one of his officers approached, saying he needed to notify him — his supervisor — of an off-duty incident the week before.

What followed was a bombshell: Visibly upset, according to Stephens, the officer alleged that one of his fellow officers, Mike Stelzig, had repeatedly groped his wife while drunk at an off-duty social gathering and behaved in a sexually predatory manner toward another woman.

It's the kind of allegation one can imagine some departments treating with a boys-will-be-boys, all-in-the-family approach — maybe giving the accused a stern talking to, but keeping the allegations in-house. EPD, to its credit, went a different route. Within hours of the conversation, Stephens reported the allegations up the chain of command to then Lt. Capt. Tony Zanotti and then Chief Andrew Mills, who immediately agreed the issue needed to be investigated.

Within three weeks, the department had stripped Stelzig of his police powers and informed him he was under administrative and criminal investigation. In January, EPD sent Stephens' report to the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office, recommending it criminally charge Stelzig — who'd been on the force for five years — with sexual battery. Prosecutors declined to press charges, saying it was in the interest of justice as the two alleged victims in the case didn't want to proceed, but EPD's internal affairs investigation would ultimately sustain the charge, and several other allegations that he violated department policy, prompting Mills to fire Stelzig. The firing was later upheld by the city's independent personnel board, which found that Stelzig had engaged in "egregious and highly improper conduct" that was "disrespectful" and "unbecoming of an officer of the department."

In a letter notifying Stelzig of his decision, Mills wrote that the officer's conduct violated city and department policy, and "overwhelmingly demonstrates that (he does) not possess the good judgment necessary to serve as a police officer."

"It also shows that you engaged in very inappropriate behavior that reflected poorly on the police department," Mills wrote. "Your actions on Sept. 14, 2014, which included predatory sexual behavior, are extremely alarming. As a police officer you are supposed to help prevent and protect citizens from such behavior. Here, you were the perpetrator and in doing so tarnished the reputation of the Eureka Police Department."

Records of the internal affairs investigation and Stelzig's firing were recently released by the city in response to a Journal public records request made under Senate Bill 1421, a landmark state law that opened large swaths of police officer personnel files to public scrutiny for the first time. Specifically, the bill changed state laws — which for decades had been some of the most protective in the nation of police officer personnel records — by requiring that departments disclose records related to investigations of officer-involved shootings and instances of serious uses of force, as well as any sustained findings of dishonesty and sexual assault.

Cumulatively, the newly released records give the public its first real insight into how specific departments have dealt with allegations of misconduct, especially those that never spilled into public view.

"The public's trust is so absolutely vital to us," explained current EPD Chief Steve Watson. "A lot of people don't realize this or assume the opposite, but we don't circle the wagons and ignore serious misconduct. It's quite the opposite. When someone tarnishes the badge, it angers all of us because we work so hard to honor that badge and have that badge reflect honor, integrity and service."

And while it can add another level of pain or discomfort when these kinds of cases are made public under S.B. 1421, Watson said he doesn't have a problem with airing them for all to see because, ultimately, he believes it should validate community trust in his department.

"On the one hand, it's embarrassing to have to air those moments when somebody failed to live up to our standards either on the job or off duty because we try so hard to build and protect the community's trust and the vast majority of our officers are honorable people, people with great integrity who take pride in their jobs and understand the special relationship we have with the community," he said. "At the same time, the other side of it is that it is an opportunity for people to understand that we do hold ourselves accountable."

Stelzig's case specifically also highlights the power dynamic often present in sexual assault cases: the notion that police officers are never fully off duty and the social complexities that can prevent bystanders from intervening when they see an interaction unfolding that seems to carry the potential for harm.

At first blush, it may be hard for some to square the notion that Stelzig was fired for things he did while off the job. But Watson said that's shortsighted.

"When you're a police officer, your off-duty conduct matters," he said, adding that it can not only reflect poorly on the department but it can also harm an officer's credibility on the job. "Our oath covers both on and off-duty conduct."

And in cases of a sexual assault, there's a unique power dynamic at play when the perpetrator is an officer, whether or not they are in uniform. North Coast Rape Crisis Team Community Outreach Coordinator Paula Arrowsmith-Jones, speaking generally and not about Stelzig's case, said it's incredibly important that police officers be held to a high standard even when off duty, specifically because of this power dynamic.

"With power comes responsibility and officers have a special relationship to the rest of us in the community because of the authority they hold," she said. "The same kind of dynamic is there with employer-employee, teacher-student, etcetera, but an officer has the power to hold over someone things like arrest or the use of physical force, taking away a person's civil rights, just by virtue of the position they hold."

In Stelzig's case, this was not lost on one of the women who told investigators his actions that night left her feeling "violated."

"I mean, he has a position of authority ... and, you know, obviously knows the boundaries," she told investigators. "I mean, you would think he would know."

After Stelzig's fellow officer came forward early that morning in September, EPD investigators brought both women in for interviews.

According to transcripts of the interviews, which were partly redacted to protect both their privacy and Stelzig's rights as they pertained to allegations of misconduct that fell outside the scope of S.B. 1421, both women alleged that Stelzig was visibly drunk on the night in question.

One of the women told investigators that Stelzig kissed her on the neck and brushed his hand against her breast while greeting her that night, and then repeatedly touched her inappropriately. Multiple times while walking behind her he touched her buttocks, she alleged, once moving his hand to her inner thigh. On several other occasions, she said, she was holding a young child when Stelzig approached, interacted briefly with the child and then let his hand wander to her breasts.

"His hands were all over me — all over me," she told investigators.

The other woman told investigators that Stelzig was constantly hugging or or putting an arm around her, and that she repeatedly felt the need to squirm away from him to avoid his touching her buttocks or breasts, according to the transcript. She said the interactions left her feeling violated.

"I don't let generally anybody get that close to me," she told investigators. "It crossed the line for me. I was uncomfortable."

Both women said another woman present at the gathering noticed at least some of the interactions and told Stelzig — on several occasions — something along the lines of, "You're scaring her, you creeper," and told him to get away.

When he was interviewed as part of the internal investigation, Stelzig denied doing anything inappropriate but conceded he can be physically affectionate and likes to give hugs, especially after drinking. He also denied being overly intoxicated the night in question.

But Stelzig's fellow officer told investigators during an official interview after making his initial report that Stelzig was "good and liquored up" that night. The officer said he witnessed Stelzig's interactions with the woman who said his repeated attempts to hug her and put an arm around her made her uncomfortable, saying Stelzig was "bird dogging" her from the moment she arrived at the gathering.

The officer described one interaction where he noticed Stelzig speaking to the woman while leaning with his arm up against a wall, saying it appeared he had her cornered. At other points, he said he saw Stelzig put his arm around the woman's waist and neck, and she was visibly uncomfortable, describing her face as "hilarious" and noting someone could look at it and realize, "holy cow, this woman wants off the ride."

"So ... it did not appear to you those actions were welcomed by this woman?" an investigator asked.

"It didn't but, at the same time, she wasn't running away or anything and I'm like, well, you're not holding anything, you know, and you could like punch this guy or knee-strike him in the groin or something you know ... but she wasn't running away," the officer responded, apparently oblivious to the possibility that entering into a physical confrontation with a man trained in the use of force may not have seemed like a viable option for a petite woman. "The look on her face, though, at least at one point told me that maybe she didn't really like it but just didn't know how to get him off."

While the officer clearly felt uncomfortable about Stelzig's interactions with the woman, he made no efforts to intercede but said he tried to keep an eye on the two of them.

Again speaking generally and not about Stelzig's case, Arrowsmith-Jones said North Coast Rape Crisis teaches workshops about bystander engagement and how people can recognize "opportunities to intervene in certain ways when there are situations with the potential for harm," recognizing that social pressures can make it difficult or awkward. She said a big part of the equation is helping people understand the barriers to intervening — fearing you're misunderstanding the situation, fearing the perpetrator may hurt you or not wanting to step out of a crowd to be the only one to intervene.

She said she teaches "the three Ds" — direct, distract and delegate. Direct intervention would be addressing the perpetrator, saying something like, "Hey buddy, you need to stop." A distraction would be less confrontational and centers around getting the perpetrator or the other person involved out of the interaction.

"I might feel like I could go over and make an excuse and say, 'Hey, remember we were going to hang out or go do something,'" Arrowsmith-Jones said.

Delegating is simply going to someone else with your concerns and saying, "Hey, can you help me out because I'm not sure what to do," whether that's an official — like a police officer — or a friend.

It's important to think about intervention more broadly and recognizing that it's not "always about jumping in the middle of a fight," Arrowsmith-Jones said. And in instances when people don't intervene, she said, it's important they reflect on the situation and contemplate what they could do differently in the future.

"The other thing we would say is, if I saw something weird and wasn't able to interrupt it, I still have the opportunity to check in with the person afterward and ask them, 'Are you OK? Do you need anything?'" she said, adding that despite opportunities — or missed opportunities — for intervention, the ultimate responsibility for predatory behavior rests solely with the perpetrator. "The violence — or any inappropriate behavior — rests solely on the shoulders of the person doing it and not anyone who didn't intervene."

Reflecting on Stelzig's case, Watson said he hopes the disclosure of the internal affairs investigation shows the public that EPD won't hesitate to clean its own house, noting that the investigation spanned more than a year and caused fissures within the department. In all these cases, Watson said command staff is legally prohibited from telling officers why one of their colleagues is under investigation and not out on patrol. It's trying, Watson said, but ultimately necessary.

"This badge means so much to us," Watson said. "We understand it entails a sacred oath and our authority is derived from the community's trust."

Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor and prefers he/him pronouns. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.

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Thadeus Greenson

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

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