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Broken Blue Line 

Long-simmering resentment in the Eureka Police Department erupts with lawsuits and sleaze

At an April 2008 special meeting of the Eureka City Council, which was called to review Police Chief Garr Nielsen's year-old contract, two vastly different depictions of the new chief emerged. Community members voiced support, characterizing him as a forthright and tough-minded reformer who was bringing needed change to the recalcitrant old guard.

About a dozen departmental employees, on the other hand, said the chief was actually a vindictive bully -- a man who punished anyone who dared challenge his authority with demotions or reassignment. DeeDee Wilson, a 26-year employee at the department, even warned the council that she'd filed a sexual harassment and hostile workplace complaint against the chief and begged them to hold off on a decision.

The council sided with the public, unanimously approving a contract extension. The following month, Nielsen was exonerated of Wilson's charges by an independent investigator, and it seemed that his detractors had been silenced.

They had not.

These days, the Eureka Police Department is a swirling nightmare of lawsuits and investigations, claims and counterclaims, intrigue and ill will. At least four current or former employees of the department are pursuing complaints at the federal level through the Equal Employment Opportunity Council and the Department of Fair Housing and Employment. Several sources say that the Humboldt County Grand Jury is investigating Nielsen's alleged misuse of city funds, with a report due in the coming weeks.

How did it come to this? Is it the work of a group of old-school EPD employees who have dug in their heels to resist reform at all costs, and who don't mind dragging down the department and the city to get their way? Or is it the result of an incompetent manager who compensates for personal shortcomings and professional misconduct by crushing subordinates who have the means to blow the whistle on him? Is Nielsen a tough-minded reformer cleaning up a messy department, or just an asshole?

Since litigation has clamped so many mouths, at this point it's difficult to say where the truth lies. Each interpretation has its champions. It's just possible that both are true, to one degree or another.

There's only a few things that can be said with certainty.

First: In this age of razor-thin budgets, the rift between Nielsen and some of his troops has cost the City of Eureka a whole lot of money. The city has spent over $100,000 to hire outside private investigators and legal advisors to deal with a flurry of workplace complaints at Nielsen's EPD, according to City Manager David Tyson. And there's no sign that these ongoing expenses are going to go away anytime soon.

Second: The rift that has divided the department almost from the moment Nielsen came on board is about to explode.

From one point of view -- that of Chief Nielsen's supporters -- it might be said that the current trouble within the EPD began the moment he was hired.

Nielsen was brought in from the Multnomah County, Ore. sheriff's office as someone who could clean up the department and help resuscitate its internal malaise and heal its horrendous public image. In the months leading up to April 2007, when Nielsen assumed command, the department had shot and killed several civilians -- one of them a 16-year-old boy with a knife, another a mentally ill woman barricaded in her downtown apartment and armed only with a flare pistol. Public confidence in the EPD was at its nadir. The department suffered chronic staffing shortages. It cried out for reform.

The new chief answered that call, firing people and reassigning them nearly as soon as he took over. In the months that followed, he disbanded the department's SWAT team and slashed its overtime budget, which affected both the activities and paychecks of sworn officers. He announced that he would ask the state Department of Justice to investigate officer-related shootings on his watch in place of the Critical Incident Response Team, which is composed of officers from several local agencies, including the EPD.

Given the pace of reform, supporters might say, it's no wonder that some members of the old, tight-knit EPD might rebel.

From the point of view of his detractors in the department, though, Nielsen has been a power-hungry chief who serves up arbitrary retribution against dedicated staffers -- and who, furthermore, has wasted city resources and punished employees who have become aware of his misdeeds.

The most well known of these allegations originally appeared on an anonymous blog called Above the Law, which first appeared in early 2008 and has since been mostly erased. The blog, authored by someone using the pseudonym "Frank Serpico," served as a rallying point for anti-Nielsen forces, presumably inside the department.

Early last year, Above the Law relayed details of an incident that allegedly took place after the department's 2007 Christmas party. The alleged events were later to form the basis of a harassment claim against Nielsen and a worker's compensation disability suit.

According to her testimony in an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission administrative court this month, Suzie Owsley, the department's former public information officer, received a text message shortly after the Christmas party, apparently sent from Chief Nielsen's phone. The message said something along the lines of, "Sorry I was not much fun last night."

Rather than simply deleting the message, Owsley asked the chief about it the next time she saw him. He claimed not to have sent it. Owsley then proceeded to ask around the office: "Does this make sense to you? How'd this get on my phone?" When she showed it to police dispatcher Tawnie Hansen, Hansen allegedly took the phone and held it for some time, eventually handing it back to Owsley saying she didn't know what it meant. An hour afterward, Owsley noticed that the message had been deleted.

In the administrative court, Owsley testified that she was reassigned from her position as public information officer shortly after this. In March, a version of the story appeared on the Above the Law blog, along with intimations that Nielsen and Hansen -- both of them married to other people -- were engaged in an affair. Owsley, who vehemently denied being "Frank Serpico," said the chief nonetheless held her responsible, and that his retribution escalated.

Owsley, like Wilson, eventually filed a claim against the city for harassment. Theirs weren't the only administrative claims in Nielsen's EPD. "There were probably seven or eight ongoing, at one time or another," said Tyson Monday. Though precise figures in the matter are hard to come by, it would appear that most all of the claims have been rejected.

But Owsley and at least three other current or former employees of the department are still pursuing their complaints at the federal level through the Equal Employment Opportunity Council and the Department of Fair Housing and Employment, which recently sent Owsley a notice of her right to sue the City of Eureka.

On June 9, Owsley took her case to the EEOC's worker's compensation appeals board. Representing herself, Owsley testified to an escalating series of events, a chain that somehow led from a seemingly innocuous text message to a cruel and systematic campaign of harassment and retribution that caused her physical and emotional distress, eventually driving her from the department.

Capt. Murl Harpham, a 52-year-veteran of the department, was there to testify, along with Wilson and three other past and present members of the EPD. Harpham, who testified on Owsley's behalf, said that Nielsen had told him to revise a positive performance review that he had given her last year. Harpham, who felt that Owsley had done a fine job, read from the note Nielsen had given him.

"Murl, this is an unacceptable performance evaluation," Nielsen had written. "There are a number of issues related to her performance which need to be addressed. Please revise. GN."

But when he met with the Nielsen to discuss the matter, Harpham testified, the chief had been vague as to what issues he wanted addressed. "The only thing he really came up with was she wasn't punctual and she tended to be sloppy," he said. "And out of uniform sometimes."

At the end of Tuesday's proceedings the hearing was taken off-calendar pending an examination by a qualified medical expert into Owsley's claims of physical and psychological suffering. The city's attorney, Pat McAleer, has yet to offer up his defense. It is uncertain when the case will continue.

In the meantime, another local blog -- the Humboldt Herald -- reported Monday the hitherto unnoticed fact that Hansen has filed suit against Wilson and other as-yet unnamed defendants, alleging that they were behind the Above the Law blog, and had therefore spread false rumors about Hansen. The case also accuses the defendants of "sending [Hansen] flowers and other purported gift items addressed to Tawnie Nielsen, a name which combined her first name with the last of the EPD chief."

The case was first filed late last year; Wilson was added as a defendant in early May. The suit alleges that the defendants libeled Hansen and intentionally caused her emotional distress, and asks for $25,000 in compensation as well as punitive damages. In it, she flatly denies any improper or intimate relationship with Nielsen.

"Hansen has suffered and will continue to suffer mental anguish and emotional distress, including anxiety, anger, depression, irritability and loss of sleep," the suit reads. The next pretrial hearing in the case is scheduled for Aug. 12.

Now, it would seem, at least one side of the argument is not content with the fact that the case has hitherto been confined to the courthouse and City Hall.

Last Wednesday morning (June 24), an e-mail from a person who called himself "John Smith" was sent to Eureka City Manager David Tyson and several members of the City Council. Attached to the message were two photographs taken the previous afternoon. One was of a closeup of a parked, city-owned car with police lights in the windshield. Travel trailers and a public restroom are visible in the margins.

The other photograph, taken a few moments earlier from some distance, show a man with Nielsen's appearance hauling a rubber raft on his shoulder, walking away from a truck and boat parked behind the city car. A woman in sunglasses is standing in the boat. In his e-mail, "John Smith" alleges that the woman is Tawnie Hansen, and that he took the pictures the day previous at a campground near Lewiston, in Trinity County.

The story told by "John Smith" in his letter to city officials is improbable in the extreme. "Smith" -- who claims to be an average citizen with a friend in the EPD -- says he was driving to Redding on the previous Monday when he was passed by the city car at a high rate of speed. Though "Smith" says he does not work for the city, he claims he identified it immediately as a Eureka city vehicle driven by Garr Nielsen.


"Smith" claims that he called a friend in Eureka after being passed. The friend allegedly told "Smith" that Nielsen was likely visiting "his girlfriend" -- Tawnie Hansen -- at her vacation place near Lewiston. On his way back from Redding, "Smith" continues, he decided to take a detour to Lewiston to check it out. "Smith" then opined that Nielsen had "BROUGHT DISGRACE" to the Eureka Police Department, and threatened to release the photos to the public if something were not done. On Friday, he forwarded his correspondence and the pictures to the Journal, saying that he had heard this paper was writing a story on the subject.

Calls to Nielsen were referred to EPD Personnel Director Teresia Haase who, when asked about the photos, said "I'm sorry, I have no comment to make on that."

Alan Goldberg, the attorney who is representing Hansen in the libel suit, said Tuesday that Hansen's family had been at the Lewiston property at the time.

"I understand he visited the whole family, including Tawnie's husband," Goldberg said. "I don't know if [her husband] was there at the specific time the chief was there, but there's nothing untoward about this visit."

Councilmember Larry Glass -- a strong Nielsen supporter who had not received the photos -- said Monday that he knew Nielsen had, in fact, traveled to Trinity County last week for a short vacation to visit Hansen. Glass said that he had called Nielsen on his cell phone the previous Monday to invite him to come to a meeting. Glass said that Nielsen told him that he was at Lewiston with Hansen's family for a few days.

"They have a friendship," he said. "If you've seen [the Humboldt Herald] today, you've seen that that friendship got her into a lot of trouble, through some unsavory tactics."

Glass said that, to him, the call was proof of the innocence of their relationship. Given Hansen's lawsuit against Wilson and the other alleged, as-yet-unnamed bloggers and commenters at the Above the Law blog, would Nielsen really have undermined her case by visiting Hansen in Trinity County and admitting it on the phone if the allegations about their relationship had any basis in fact?

"If it's true, why was he up there with her family?" Glass said. "I just don't see the big secret."

Given the media leaks from dubious sources, the calendar of upcoming court cases and, possibly, a Grand Jury report on Nielsen's spending of public resources, the internal war between Nielsen and his detractors appears to be on the verge of spreading beyond the walls of EPD headquarters. The tension over the matter has risen considerably in the last two weeks.

"The [Eureka City] Council is aware that there are issues," Councilman Jeff Leonard told the Journal last week. "We're working on those issues."

Regardless of the details of Nielsen's relationship with Hansen, the use of city property to drive to Trinity County appears to be a matter of concern to some. Though he declined to discuss the specifics of the allegations against Nielsen, City Manager Tyson said Monday that city vehicles are generally provided in order for personnel who are on-call around the clock to respond to city emergencies. The employees are given the option of using their own vehicle and being reimbursed for costs, or else using a city vehicle.

"Incidental use is certainly understood, but it doesn't contemplate off-duty travel," Tyson said. "If an employee who has this contract ... if he has an event in Fortuna, say, it's certainly understood that he will take the car to that event. But if he's away on leave time it's a different matter."

Tyson said that public scrutiny in this time of budget crisis requires public employees to be careful about how they are spending taxpayer dollars. "On the personal use of the vehicle, that's something we counsel all of our employees to be very careful about," he said. "The public has a perception that these cars will be used for business purposes."

For his part, Glass said that he understood Nielsen's contract to specifically include unlimited use of the vehicle. There had been some question about the matter when Nielsen drove the car to Oregon to visit his family, Glass said, and it was his recollection that after some investigation it was determined that the city's insurance policy required that the vehicle not be driven out of state.

Whatever the case, this is just one aspect of a beef that isn't going away anytime soon. The public sector, Glass rued, is a whole different animal than the private sector; you can't simply fire someone who isn't with the program.

For their part, the anti-Nielsen side shows no sign whatsoever of backing down on their claims. And so one side or the other will have to be thoroughly defeated, legally and politically -- a long, costly process with no guarantee of justice in the end, whatever justice might be in this case. The only certainties in the coming months are: a) the vast expenditures of taxpayer money, and b) ongoing dysfunction in the city's most critical institution.

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Hank Sims

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