WUPD Chief of Police Sexual Harrasment Allegations 4/21/19

There’s a small scandal unfolding in the West Union Police Department I’ve been trying to follow. I became aware of it when I read an article about it in the local paper, the Fayette County Union, but it’s been unfolding for the past few months. 

The Facts as I Understand Them

When I picked up the thread on the story, the situation was as follows: the lone female Police Officer in the West Union Police Department, Sierra Fox, had just submitted her resignation to the city council at their request. It is unclear to me who in particular made the decision to ask for her resignation, but it was requested in a meeting with the city administrator and at least 2 council members (the Police Committee). The reason, more-or-less, boiled down to there being a judgment made that she wasn’t performing to the standard of the job. 

She submitted her resignation letter (which you can find here) several days later. Besides resigning her position, the content of the resignation letter that Officer Fox submitted included allegations against the WUPD Chief of Police, Paul Becthold. She claimed that he was abusive to her and treated her differently than other officers because she was a woman. As far as I know, this letter was the first public airing of this issue, but they knew about it internally. She submitted a formal complaint about these issues to the city on January 23, 2019. The city did some kind of investigation, determined that the complaint was unfounded, and Becthold was cleared of any wrongdoing. It seems as though the city was already trying to address performance issues with Officer Fox prior to January 23, when she submitted her complaint. 

On February 9 (which I believe, but am uncertain, is after the initial internal investigation was completed), she submitted a formal complaint to the Iowa Civil Rights Commission. I believe that complaint is still unresolved. In her resignation letter, she claimed that she was being forced to resign in retaliation for submitting these complaints. She’s worked in the WUPD since 2015 and claims to have only started having trouble when Becthold took his position as Chief of Police in September 2017. He was previously Chief of Police in Nashua, starting in 2014.

Alongside this resignation letter, Officer Fox submitted supporting materials that included two sworn affidavits by former WUPD officers corroborating many of her claims—specifically about the sexist and derogatory language that Becthold is said to have used about Fox and other women, and about various ways Becthold acted inappropriately toward Fox. These examples go back to January 2018 and include an allegation that he pressured and lied to her to convince her to leave the Teamsters Union because it would supposedly allow the police force to go from hourly wages to salary.

The resignation letter also includes the six performance complaints that were presented to her at the meeting where she was asked to resign. They broadly related to things like time usage, responsiveness, coordination, K-9 responsibilities, and equipment maintenance. There are obviously more details—especially regarding her dog (she was a k-9 handler)—but those were the key facts that jumped out at me as being most important. 

Most of this information is based on documents attatched to Fox’s resignation letter, and the reporting of various news orgs. Since reading through the documents, I’ve learned a couple of interesting things from talking to people. The most notable is that it appears that an external firm has been hired to re-investigate Becthold. For some reason, at this point I don’t believe that’s been publicly disclosed. The second is that there might be a good deal more documentation that has not come to light that indicates that Officer Fox was justly terminated—there is at least a genuine impression among some people in law enforcement that she wasn’t a particularly good officer.

What Does it Mean

My immediate reaction is that this looks bad for both Becthold and the city. The fact that there are two officers willing to corroborate many of her claims and vouch for her competency as an officer, makes her own claims seem that much more credible. If Becthold has in fact been behaving as she and the other officers describe, then he definitely shouldn’t have a job on a police force, let alone be Chief of Police. And if the claims are true, the city bungled the initial investigation of Becthold and then continued to enable Becthold’s retaliatory behavior without enough skepticism (I don’t have any reason to think they were acting spitefully themselves). Even if Fox had performance issues, the described behavior by Becthold is obviously unacceptable if true.

My evaluation of the situation is that 1 of 4 things can be true:

1) Officer Fox is an incompetent police officer who has fabricated these allegations as leverage to keep her K-9 partner, get a cash pay-out, and restore her reputation, and she has somehow convinced two other officers to corroborate her lies.

2) Chief of Police Becthold was sexist and abusive toward Officer Fox, but she also has some shortcomings as a police officer that justify removing her from the police force that exist independently of Becthold’s sexist behavior.

3) Officer Fox is a good officer who hasn’t been performing up to her potential as the result of the toxic, sexist environment created by Chief of Police Becthold.

4) Chief of Police Becthold has been extremely abusive of Fox and maligned and mischaracterized her so broadly that he’s convinced the city administration and members of the law enforcement community that she is a terrible officer, even though she is performing perfectly well.

I’m open to any of these possibilities being true. On their face, I find the affidavits submitted by the two officers to be very persuasive and realistic, and I think it would be remarkable for them to have been fabricated. I could be convinced otherwise, but for Possibility 1 to be true, it seems like those affidavits need to be demonstrated to be false. That said, I think the truth is likely somewhere on the continuum of Possibilities 2, 3, & 4. 

On the other hand, the city investigated Becthold’s behavior and cleared him. I have little insight into how that investigation was conducted. In the documents I’ve seen as part of this release I’ve found 2 references to the investigation: 1) the mayor and city administrator interviewing Chief Becthold directly, and 2) Officer Moore meeting briefly with the mayor and city admin and not having time to discuss the sex discrimination against Officer Fox. 

I don’t know about the backgrounds of the mayor or city admin, but I suspect neither are trained investigators or interviewers. I’m very open to learning more about that investigation. Based on those two lonely data points I feel a little uneasy, but that’s a very tentative impression. Hopefully, the investigation was sufficiently skeptical of Becthold and there were more people involved than just the mayor and city admin.

What Should be Done

First of all, I want to say the people in the West Union City Government are public servants and even if I think things should be handled differently, their service is still very much appreciated. This is a tough situation, and even if there were mistakes made in hindsight (which may not even be true), that doesn’t mean they are incompetent or anything like that. This is tricky. And there’s a good chance I’m wrong about lots of stuff.

I think it’s good that the city has hired an external firm to investigate the situation (assuming this is true). In the meantime, I think it would be appropriate to ask Chief Becthold to go on leave while this investigation takes place. Even if Possibility 1 proves to be true, putting him on leave is the responsible thing to do and does no harm. 

I would urge the city to be more transparent about the situation. The allegations against the WUPD Chief of Police are extremely troubling and they need to be addressed publicly. For now, it could be as simple as saying, “We’re aware that new detailed allegations have come to light regarding Chief Becthold, and we’ve hired an external firm to investigate the matter.” Ultimately, the results of the investigation need to be shared, and if Becthold remains Chief of Police, an absolutely bulletproof explanation needs to be provided.

Questions I Still Have

Obviously, not all of these questions will be answered publicly, but here are some things I’m wondering about:

  • How was the initial investigation of Becthold conducted?
  • Is there, in fact, a new investigation underway? If so, why hasn’t it been publicly disclosed?
  • Are there more officers willing to corroborate accounts of Becthold’s alleged to behavior, and to what extent?
  • Has Becthold supervised any female officers before?
  • Has staff turnover under Becthold been unusual in any way?
  • What are the relationships of the two corroborating officers with both Becthold and Fox?
  • How much additional documentation is there of Fox’s performance issues?
  • Fox claims that she has logs and documentation contradicting several of the complaints against her. Is that true?
  • Is there any documentation of performance issues with Officer Fox that predate Becthold’s time as Police Chief?
  • Is there corroboration that Officer Fox was pressured to leave her union? If so, why?
  • How does union membership affect the city’s ability to dismiss police officers?

p.s. If you happen to have info that can help inform or correct the public accounting of the situation you can email me at benjfriedrich@gmail.com