Local News

Thursday, Jan 03 2013 11:00 PM

Two Tehachapi police officers file claims alleging hostile work environment

BY RACHEL COOK Californian staff writer rcook@bakersfield.com

Two Tehachapi police officers have filed claims against the city seeking $1.5 million each alleging they suffered "emotional distress and mental suffering due to (a) hostile work environment" and "loss of pay."

The claims filed with the city Monday on behalf of officers Rick Disney and Peter Graff allege that the men were harassed and passed over for merit pay raises after they reported wrongdoing within the police department, including an allegation that a senior officer gave alcohol to underage members of a youth program.

The claims are a step toward a formal lawsuit. Messages to the Tehachapi city manager's officer regarding the claims were not returned Thursday.

Bakersfield attorney Stephen Wainer, who is representing Disney and Graff, said the officers did not want to comment on their claims, but that he hopes the lawsuit changes how "things are done in Tehachapi."

"We want the police department to do the investigation they should have done a long time ago into these various criminal activities ..and to leave the officers alone and let them do their jobs," Wainer said.

In a news release sent Thursday afternoon, Tehachapi Police Chief Jeff Kermode wrote that the department takes allegations of misconduct seriously, investigating them and taking disciplinary action as warranted.

"I would ask everyone to keep an open mind and recognize that they are hearing just one side of the story, while I am prevented by law from discussing the details of the allegations. I look forward to discussing these allegations in the appropriate judicial setting," Kermode wrote.

When reached by phone earlier Thursday, Kermode said he could not comment on the allegations but confirmed that both officers are still employed with the department. Disney has worked there for two and a half years and Graff for five years, according to the claims.

Disney's claim alleges that he told the chief of police that a senior officer gave alcohol to underage Police Explorers, but that the chief assigned the investigation of the incident to a sergeant who was present when the infraction occurred.

"To this day, not all of the percipient witnesses to that event have been interviewed," the claim alleges.

While Kermode said he could not comment on the claims Thursday, he spoke with The Californian last year about accusations of drinking at an Explorer event.

At that time, Kermode said the incident happened three years ago and had been investigated informally and with an internal affairs investigation.

According to Kermode, advisers on an Explorer trip gathered in a hotel room and had a couple of beers. An 18- or 19-year-old female adviser was seen with a glass of wine or beer and the alcohol was taken from her by other advisers, Kermode said.

The woman was not invited back as an adviser and since then a no-alcohol policy for advisers has been implemented for all trips, the chief said.

The Tehachapi Police Explorers program was started in 2007 and is open to youth ages 14 to 21, according to the city's website. Kermode said the program is part of the Boy Scouts of America.

"We've been pretty aggressive if there's anything that's even remotely questionable," he said last year. "I just hate to see this thing keep resurfacing because it seems to be to the detriment of the kids."

Aside from the Explorer incident, the claims laid out other allegations, including:

* Graff reported that a sergeant was recording more hours than what he worked, but the incident was not investigated, according to his claim.

* Graff and Disney both reported an incident at "an off-duty function" where a senior officer threatened to shoot Graff, but the chief of police didn't investigate, the claims said. Graff's claim also said the officer he reported for threatening him now "repeatedly kicks back or rejects" Graff's traffic collision reports for being "unsatisfactory or insufficient," though his own reports are similar.

* "Senior Officers have attempted on numerous occasions to provoke a physical reaction from Officer Disney, yelling at him, preventing him from leaving the room and walking towards him as if to fight him," Disney's claim said.

* Another officer threatened to kick Graff's "ass" at an evening briefing and kicked his chair.

* Disney's claim says he was the subject of an investigation after he took the rest of a shift off after responding to a call during which an infant died in April.

The chief visited Disney and referred him to worker's compensation and the Employee Assistance Program, but then notified Disney that he was under investigation for leaving his post, according to the claim.

"This act was done despite Officer Disney's worker's compensation claim being accepted and his current treatment for the psychological trauma he experienced. He has been notified that the investigation is on hold until he returns from his leave," the claim said.

Wainer said Disney has been on leave since the April incident.

* Graff's claim alleges that he has been followed by other officers "who surreptitiously monitor his activities" while he is on patrol. The claim argues that the monitoring is warrantless and a "waste of the City's manpower and resources."

* In July 2012, the officers were both notified that they would not receive a 5 percent merit raise, though their work had been "exemplary," the claims said. Disney also did not receive field training officer compensation, although he attended a recertification course for field training officer in 2011, his claim said.

Kermode, Sgt. Kevin Empey, Senior Officer Scott Ketcham and Senior Officer Mike Christian are listed on the claim forms as the employees who caused the damages. But their names are not listed in the narrative of the claims detailing the alleged incidents. Wainer said their names are not mentioned in the events outlined in the claim to avoid violating the police officer's bill of rights.

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