Complaints against West Chester police chief: What we know now

The West Chester Twp. trustees have not taken any formal action on the complaints about their Police Chief Joel Herzog, but this week some officials voiced support.

Former Capt. Jamie Hensley resigned June 23 after he and Capt. Joe Gutman filed a formal complaint, via their attorney, against Herzog. They accused him of making sexist and racial remarks, favoritism and retaliation, in their February complaint. The township hired a third-party investigator to investigate the charges. That report was recently released and no disciplinary action was recommended but a performance improvement plan was.

Trustee Mark Welch told the Journal-News the suggested performance improvement plan for both the chief and Gutman is the way to go.

“Joel says I want to be a better person. Joel is introspective and he sees that he has made mistakes, nobody is perfect and he is willing to work to be that better person,” Welch said. “This performance improvement plan is I think just what the doctor ordered. Hopefully Gutman has the same attitude and is interested in making improvements.”

Here are five things to know:

1. The initial complaints

Some of the accusations involve a female employee who was hired by the department in March 2018. Hensley wrote a 22-page letter to township Administrator Larry Burks saying that Herzog “made inappropriate sexual comments” about the employee but also gave her and some other employees preferential treatment.

He also accused Herzog of making “racially insensitive” comments by referring to his doctor as “the terrorist” because he is of Middle Eastern or Indian descent.

When he raised these and other issues, his performance evaluation suffered, and he feared Herzog was trying to fire him to stop him from revealing things he knows, he wrote.

2. A third party investigator said no discipline was warranted

Douglas Duckett, a private attorney hired by the trustees to review the complaints, wrote in the report dated June 30 that for “Chief Herzog and for Assistant Chief (Brian) Rebholz, there is no basis for any disciplinary action.”

Duckett said a performance improvement plan should be created for Herzog, and non-improvement in identified areas could lead him to be fired.

Duckett concluded Hensley was less than truthful and the subject of an internal investigation due to alleged dishonesty during interviews with his superiors before the outside investigation.

The captains’ attorney Elizabeth Tuck disagreed with his findings.

“The investigation report … is malicious, offensive, and defamatory. Moreover, it was rushed to be released while other members of the department have been and are still coming forward to corroborate the captains’ concerns, describe a ‘culture of retaliation’ in the department, and provide more examples of wrongdoing,” Tuck said. “Instead of actually investigating my clients’ concerns about Chief Herzog’s racist, sexist, and other misconduct, the township turned the investigation on the captains to discredit them publicly and destroy their impeccable reputations.

She added that " the report blatantly misquotes my clients’ interviews, ignores most of what the concerns and incidents they described, and is irresponsible with the truth and facts. The report even defames clients’ families, an act the public should find abhorrent.”

3. More officers come forward with issues about the chief

After the captains lodged their complaint four other officers followed suit with their own allegations. Officer Michael Lopez recounted an incident with Herzog when he was about to give him recognition in front of eight to 10 fellow officers.

“He announces ‘Is this for the white Mike or the brown Mike? Oh, this is for the brown Mike’ and gives me the letter,” Lopez wrote. “Everyone in the room looked at me, probably in shock of what was just said by our leader.

“I was humiliated, but I knew I had to let it go for fear of retaliation. Since we have been under his command, everyone has learned how Chief Herzog operates, and if anyone were to come against him for any reason our job would be in jeopardy.”

He said Herzog recently apologized to him for the comment, but he was surprised he was not interviewed for the investigation into the captains’ comments, because this incident was included.

Officer Charles Hawkins recounted an incident last year in which he was discussing a recent genealogy report he received that showed some of his ancestors are from Puerto Rico and that he therefore also has African American descendants. He claimed Herzog entered the break room and made an inappropriate comment.

“The chief replied with ‘That’s cool, does that mean I get to count you as two minorities now,’” Hawkins wrote. “This statement resonated with me, for one, it was very inappropriate, racially insensitive, and outright unbecoming of a police chief. I looked at the other officers who could tell that I was shocked by the chief’s statement, and in turn they were as well.”

Officer Raymond Jones is the only Black officer on the police force and wrote he “felt highly offended, personally attacked, and disrespected” when Herzog told him to get his hair cut because is was looking “ragged.”

4. Township released internal investigation of the incidents

The report states that Hensley violated department regulations by “displaying disrespect and disdain” for the police chief in January.

The issue stems from a meeting Herzog, Assistant Chief Brian Rebholz and Human Resources Director Tonya Charles had with Hensley Jan. 28. The discussion was over Hensley’s job performance issues in general and in particular a couple Facebook messages, one providing the definition of “cronyism” by Hensley’s wife. The most recent report is redacted, but the posts are mentioned in the third-party investigator’s report that identify Hensley’s wife.

Hensley recorded the meeting on his phone and throughout the transcript of the meeting it shows the captain interrupted his boss several times saying the entire issue is “ridiculous” and “idiocy” because he isn’t even on Facebook, doesn’t talk about work at home and has no control over his wife’s actions. He also said there is no way to specifically tie her Facebook posts to the department.

Tuck, said she finds it curious why the township cares more about when or how Hensley knew about his wife’s post than the fact department staff see the word cronyism and think of Herzog.

“This is just the same sham paper trail Chief Herzog has been trying to build on Captain since he learned Captain Hensley was hiring a lawyer,” Tuck said. “There is no reason I can think of to issue an investigation report for someone who doesn’t even work there anymore, other than to build a legal defense. I am sure people can and will see right through it.”

5. Several voice support for the chief

In the wake of the complaints officials were expecting a crowd at their regular business meeting Tuesday evening. The audience was sparse with less than a dozen people attending, and only one resident commented.

Yasmen Brown-Jones asked the trustees to “understand and know the man, not the comments.”

“He has supported me, my three young, Black, male children above and beyond. He is supporting this community by trying, trying to be become a better chief of police, that’s all we can ask for,” Brown-Jones said. “I don’t know if there is any person in this room, in this township, on earth who can say they’ve never done something or said something they shouldn’t have.”

Several outside groups, like the NAACP Hamilton/Fairfield/West Chester and Showing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ) Cincinnati have issued statements saying Herzog should be fired.

“We feel that Chief Joel Herzog should not be placed on a performance plan. None of the other chiefs in other jurisdictions have been given that option and neither should Chief Joel Herzog,” Michael Reeves, president of the local NAACP chapter said.

“… This needs to be investigated on the federal level so the truth can come out without bias. The result being that Chief Joel Herzog be terminated or allowed to resign.”

Brown-Jones implored the trustees not to replace Herzog.

“If you’re looking for someone shiny, never made a mistake I hope you don’t bring them here,” she said. “I’d rather be working with a real person, someone who is trying to move the needle. So as you consider our chief of police consider the whole picture.”

Trustee Lee Wong said “nobody is perfect” and Herzog has shown “tremendous professionalism” in his career.

“In my opinion Chief Herzog has done a wonderful job in this community,” Wong said. “He cares about us, he cares about his community, he lives here, he has tremendous stake in this community for a long time.”

Trustee Board President Ann Becker assured the public Tuesday the department is taking care of business, with no disruption in service, despite the controversy.

“We’ll deal with this issue in a very deliberate and thoughtful way,” she said. “As we move forward we will take a serious decision. We do need to make some changes and changes will come.”

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