Released records give little insight on Beloit police situation

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Gina Duwe
August 25, 2015

BELOIT--More than 300 pages of emails between Beloit city officials, police and others reveal little about the events that led to the city manager placing the police chief and deputy chief on administrative leave in June.

The Gazette obtained the documents through request filed under the Wisconsin Open Records Law.

The city withheld some communications between city staff, consulting firm Hillard Heintze and city attorneys that relate “to the current pending investigation.” Those documents are protected under a state statute on employee personnel records and attorney-client privilege, according to a city letter to The Gazette.

The Gazette in June filed several open records requests with City Manager Lori Curtis Luther after she announced June 16 she had placed Chief Norm Jacobs and Deputy Chief Tom Dunkin on leave following a report by Hillard Heintze. The report found serious leadership and management issues, she said.

Jacobs and Dunkin, through their attorneys, have disputed the findings.

The police union approved a vote of “no confidence” and said Jacobs and Dunkin “cultivated a toxic environment in which officers simply were not allowed to do the jobs they were trained to do.”

The Gazette on Tuesday received 117 pages of emails in response to a June 29 request for emails and other communications between city officials related to concerns about the police department from last fall through June.

City attorney Elizabeth Krueger said only one email was withheld, and it was from a city employee who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation.

The bulk of the emails relate to a program Jacobs announced in early December that offered police to inspect homes for weapons residents might not be aware of. The inspections were only for residents who volunteered and signed an authorization allowing the search. 

Opposition to the program came from near and far, with city council member Sheila De Forest questioning the program and people from across the country demanding Jacobs be fired and comparing him to Nazis.

The program was canceled days later, with Jacobs explaining in several emails the message or intent of the program was “twisted incorrectly.” He said to one writer the message was to “make parents responsible for the safety of their family by starting at home.”

Many of the email writers opposed to the program questioned Jacobs' judgment and police strategy.

De Forest also sent a written statement to officials in January following her verbal statement at a police and fire commission meeting seeking a closer look at the police department to “assess morale and complete a performance review of the department's administrative leadership.”

She said six officers had independently talked to her about their concerns, and she felt the need to bring the concerns to the commission's attention. She also said the city became “the laughing stock of the country” for the home gun search program.

A memo from Jacobs to the police and fire commission dated the day before he was placed on leave addresses concerns in the department. It provides a “brief report on crime and our response,” noting arrests in recent shootings, work with federal authorities and positive reviews by accrediting agencies. He also said he “agonized over the morale issue” presented at the January police and fire commission meeting, and the command staff did what it could to improve “this unknown problem.” 

After the home gun search program was canceled, a TV reporter asked Jacobs if any other efforts were underway to address gun-related violence. Jacobs referred the reporter to the leader of a volunteer group that was walking in neighborhoods to increase safety.

“The police department will continue to follow up on crime as it occurs and use resources we have available to solve crime,” he wrote. “No new bright ideas from us since the one.”

Earlier this month, The Gazette also received 216 pages of emails from the city in response to the newspaper's request for all communications between Hillard Heintze and city staff, city council and police and fire commission members.

The results include discussions and outlines of the consultant's contract, explanations to staff about the investigation and police staff scheduling interview times with the consultant.

Results of an outside review of the police department likely will be available in early September. If charges are warranted against the police chief and deputy chief, a hearing before the police and fire commission could happen in October, Curtis Luther said earlier.

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