Details surrounding the process the city of Susanville followed in its hiring of John King as the city’s new police chief are hard to come by these days. The questions continue as the city has launched an independent investigation into the matter, a Susanville police lieutenant who allegedly filed a crime report reportedly is on administrative leave and Susanville Police officers reportedly are under a gag order.
But one law enforcement officer with knowledge of the issue agreed to speak to this newspaper under the condition of anonymity. The officer also said he didn’t want to be quoted in the paper. He said he was happy to talk to the newspaper, but he didn’t want his comments to drag him into the controversy.
He said the questions asked by Mike Taborski, publisher of the Lassen County Times, in the March 21 issue were good ones that framed the issue.
Those questions are: Does King meet the minimum qualifications as outlined in the city’s recruitment materials, and how might the city’s decision to use other criteria affect others who did not apply because they thought they did not meet those minimum standards? Did the city violate state law and Police Officer Standards and Training requirements when it hired King as police chief? When did the Susanville City Council vote to hire King and why wasn’t that action taken during an open, public session? Did the council take a vote to hire King in closed session, and if so, why wasn’t that action reported to the public as required by the Brown Act, California’s Open Meeting law? Who voted to hire King? Is it legal for the city to hire the police chief during a closed session? When was King sworn in? Why wasn’t that a public ceremony? Did the city rely on an allegedly forged document in King’s hiring process? If a document was forged, who did it and why, and how does this affect King’s hiring and his service as the city’s chief of police?
“We hope the city will put this issue to rest as quickly as possible. Taking ownership and answering these questions will help reinforce trust in handling the public’s business. We will continue to pursue the answers,” Taborski said.
The officer said he hoped the grand jury would investigate this matter because he thought they were the appropriate watchdog group in this instance.
The officer said the people suffering through all this are the people who work at the police department.
City’s past practices
The officer said it was interesting that there was no public ceremony regarding King’s hiring as the chief of police.
He said if citizens looked at the procedure the city followed in hiring two previous police chiefs — Jeff Atkinson and Tom Downing – they would discover these actions were taken in public, unlike King’s hiring which was an action that never was publicly announced.
The officer said if Jared Hancock, the city administrator, has the authority to hire the chief without the council’s approval, King’s hiring may be appropriate. He suggested the newspaper ask the city about its rules in hiring a police chief. Does the city administrator have the authority to hire the chief by himself?
The officer noted the city council talked about hiring the chief in closed session, but no action was ever publicly reported about those deliberations.
New chief’s qualifications
The officer said he wasn’t saying anything bad about the new chief, but it’s clear he does not meet the minimum qualifications as required in the city’s recruitment documents.
The officer said the city required three years management experience and the ability to possess a POST management certificate after one year on the job. He said it is impossible for King to meet that requirement. He said while Hancock reportedly said that requirement could be met by a combination of other experience, that’s not what the recruitment materials said.
He said while King seems to be a nice person, the issue is he may not meet the qualifications for the job, according to the recruitment materials.
Was the process completed before the chief was hired?
Another issue for the city council centers on the timeliness of the new chief’s background check and fingerprinting — items that normally would be completed before a new peace officer is hired.
The officer said these may be legitimate concerns. He said the city may have worked hard the week before the chief was hired to complete that process, but he knows people who were contacted regarding the chief’s background after he had been hired. He said if the chief’s background check had been completed before King was hired, that would be the quickest background check investigation he’s ever seen.
The officer said he couldn’t comment on an issue raised by another officer that the chief was hired before he’d been fingerprinted. He said the chief could have had his fingerprints taken anywhere, and he has no knowledge about that matter.
Background check process
The officer provided information on how background checks typically are conducted when hiring a law enforcement officer.
He said the department would normally send a letter to the city and the county where an applicant said he or she had lived along with a waiver that would grant permission to the law enforcement agencies to release any information.
The officer said in this case, it appears Hancock decided to conduct the background check himself, but then discovered there are a number of legal requirements that must be followed for the check to be legal, and so he hired a background investigator — something that’s not uncommon.
The officer admitted he is speculating about this sequence of events, but he believes this is probably what happened.
The investigator probably got some of these background letters from Hancock because he doesn’t believe they came from Jim Uptegrove, the city’s interim chief of police (who was working part time), or the police lieutenant. Some of this material was returned to the Susanville Police Department because it was on police department letterhead.
When the lieutenant looked at one of these documents, it had his signature on it, but he claims he never signed it, leading to the crime report alleging impersonation of a peace officer and forgery. That crime report allegedly was forwarded to the Lassen County Grand Jury and the California Department of Justice. When this newspaper first asked Hancock about this crime report several weeks ago, he said he was not aware of it.
Later, Jessica Ryan, the city’s attorney, denied the newspaper’s Public Records Act request to obtain the report.