Great Bend Police Chief Cliff was not on the City Council to speak Monday night and he was not going to be allowed to address the governing body.
But, when he did, he spoke of problems hiring and keeping officers, and a work life that was a “living hell” after he bucked the wishes of city officials.
But, his comments didn’t come right away. The fact he wasn’t going to be allowed time didn’t sit well with Councilman Dana Dawson and the vocal standing-room-only crowd packed into the council chambers for the meeting.
A lively discussion
“I want to talk about why our Police Department is having problems,” Dawson said, in moving to give Couch the floor. “This is a safety issue that affects all of us.”
He was referring to on-going problems in hiring and retaining officers. This is blamed by some to have caused a personnel shortage, forcing other officers to work extra shifts to pick up the slack.
But, “we don’t have the Police Department on the agenda,” Mayor Mike Allison said.
That comment set off a chorus of responses from the audience.
“How long are you going to ignore it,” someone shouted.
“This is our city, too,” someone else yelled.
“You work for us,” another spectator said.
Eventually, the crowd silenced enough for Dawson to make a motion to allow Couch to speak. Councilman Brock McPherson, wanting to hear both sides of the issue, seconded this.
Couch had not asked to be on the agenda. But, “The facts need to be brought forward,” Dawson said.
“Dana asked me (to put Couch on the agenda), but I said no,” Allison said.
That led to another shouting match.
“What are you hiding from,” an audience member said.
Finally, a vote was taken and by a 4-3 margin, Couch was asked to step forward. As he stood at the podium, he was greeted with a loud round of applause.
Chief Couch takes the floor
“We’ve got some problems in the Police Department,” the chief said. “This is nothing that is new. This is cyclical.”
But, this cycle of losing officers to other agencies is forcing extra shifts and causing burnout among the remaining officers. “We cannot just absorb these losses easily.”
He realizes this is a long-term problem and there are no easy answers.
“I’ve lost sleep over this,” Couch said. “I’ve done a lot of soul searching. This crisis is real and is dangerous for the community.”
He apologized for dropping this on the council “out of the blue,” but said he has been told by City Administrator Howard Partington not to trouble the council with these concerns. In fact, he has been chastised for challenging Partington.
McPherson said the council had been led to believe Couch had a “change of attitude” and was no longer interested in “seeing the department advance.”
“If that’s what you’ve been told, you’ve been lied to,” Couch said. “My work life has been a living hell since I dared to disagree.”
Couch said he has studied this matter as scientifically as possible and come to three possible problems: Workload, compensation (pay and benefits) and a hostile work environment.
As for workload, he looked at officer to citizen ratios (Great Bend is 1.8 per thousand while the Midwest average is 2.6) and case data. Both suggest the department should have between 13 and 20 more officers.
“Whatever measure we use, there is something going on here,” he said. “Whatever we look at, we are understaffed.”
With pay, he said other departments nearby offer between $1-2 more per hour along with a retirement package. Hiring efforts at job fairs have until recently proved fruitless.
Couch did say that following an emergency meeting with Partington, pay was increased some for entry-level officers and that has helped. Now, the biggest gap is with the veteran officers.
In regards to the work environment, Couch said this stems from a single comment from an exit interview. It referenced a single incident that took place two years ago.
“The Police Department takes any complaints, both internally and externally, very seriously,” he said. Sure, there are problems, but they get resolved.
In the end, Couch said the key problems are recruitment and retention. These will take time and be costly and he understands the other financial burdens faced by the council. He asked that the council commission an outside consultant to study the matter.
“I don’t think its going to fix itself,” Couch said.
Background: A letter-writing campaign
In an open letter to members of the Great Bend City Council dated May 30, Great Bend attorney Dennis Keenan charged City Administrator Howard Partington with a pattern of retaliation against Police Chief Cliff Couch, the Great Bend Tribune reported June 1. Keenan demanded the council appoint a third-party investigator to investigate the accusations.
According to the letter: “I am writing you on behalf of my client, Clifton Couch, who is the Chief of Police. The purpose of this letter is to inform you of concerns Chief Couch has regarding several issues with City Government, most of which deal with conduct by the City Administrator, Howard Partington,” he wrote. “Chief Couch has been and is currently the subject of harassment and retaliation by Mr. Partington.
“Mr. Partington recently orchestrated an Executive Session (at the May 1 council meeting) at which he allegedly told numerous lies regarding Chief Couch’s ethics, his work conduct, his capability, and the state of his department. For the last year and a half, Mr. Partington has ignored Chief Couch’s stated concerns about the need for more manpower at the Police Department and a compensation study performed by an outside entity. As a result, Chief Couch’s warnings came true and the department has now reached a critical, dangerous state involving a drastic manpower shortage. In order to conceal his role in bringing the police department to this state, Mr. Partington has made spurious accusations against both Chief Couch and other members of the department. He has initiated an investigation into the police department whose clear purpose is to find a hostile work environment within the department, whether one exists or not, in an attempt to conceal the police department’s needs for additional manpower and a compensation study. Furthermore, he recently advised Chief Couch that he was forbidden from attending the FBI National Academy, an elite school that Chief Couch was admitted to over a year ago. Mr. Partington advised that this action was ‘punishment’ for the Chief’s refusal to parrot his views that manpower and compensation had nothing to do with the department’s issues, even though Chief Couch believes that available evidence indicates otherwise. Chief Couch feels that parroting a view he does not believe true would be contrary to his integrity and would violate his law enforcement oath.”
At the time the Tribune contacted council members about this letter, they had not received it and said it sounded like a personnel matter and felt it better to not comment. City officials had not seen it either and offered no statement.
Not the first letter
However, the Keenan letter was the latest in a series of letters to city officials regarding the Police Department.
On May 24, the Tribune reported on letters to Great Bend City Council members and/or city officials from the local Fraternal Order of Police chapter expressing concern over staffing shortages within the Great Bend Police Department, blaming this on salaries that fail to compete with other cities. Members are frustrated with a lack of response, officer moral, and worry about the safety of the community.
“The concern regarding compensation has to do with the (lack of separation) of pay between officers who recently started with the department and officers who have served for several years,” reads a letter to the council and administration on behalf of the FOP Lodge No. 23 dated April 19 from Overland Park attorney Matthew R. Huntsman. “The staffing concerns are inseparable from the compensation issues.”
In a follow-up letter that went only to the council and Mayor Mike Allison, the FOP noted that as of May 11, Huntsman had not “received any correspondence regarding the letter you had been given. We feel these concerns are very important and would like to hear from you and the council members.”
The city did respond to these letters.
“We are studying why the nine officers have left the department in the last couple of years,” City Attorney Bob Suelter said. “This study was started before the letters were received. It is being carried out to try to solve a perceived problem and not in retribution for anything.”
Pay issues will have to be addressed in the budget process.