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Sparks fly during hearing for terminated lieutenant | Enumclaw Police
The Enumclaw Municipal Court was the stage for dramatic and often tense exchanges during the appeal hearing concerning the termination of Eric Sortland, a lieutenant with the city’s police department.
Sortland had been with the Enumclaw Police Department since 1985 and had served as a lieutenant since 1997.
The three-member commission heard testimony and was presented two notebook binders full of documents during Friday and Saturday sessions in a quasi-judicial setting.
The members of the commission are chairman Michael Stensen and commissioners Jerry Metcalf and Jan Molinaro. Advising the commission was P. Stephen DiJuli, an attorney with the Seattle law firm Foster Pepper.
Representing the city was attorney Tom J. Kugler. Representing Sortland was Brett Purtzer from Tacoma’s Hester Law Group.
The case revolved around several incidents that were presented in detail to the commission through testimony and documents.
The commission heard contradictory testimony concerning some of the most incendiary allegations involving insubordination, misrepresentation and discrimination against female police officers.
At the end of the two days, nearly 13 hours of testimony and more than 10 witnesses, Kugler said in his closing arguments, “Somebody is not telling the truth here. Lt. Sortland would have you believe he’s telling the truth and everyone else in the department is a liar. That decision is up to you.”
Purtzer said in his opening remarks the issues centered on disputes between Zoll and Sortland.
“What you will hear is that the department was basically dysfunctional regarding chain of command. Reporting things other officers thought was misconduct. It just didn’t happen…. It all stems from Chief Zoll, not from Lt. Sortland.”
Later in his argument, Purtzer stated, “This is not a situation of insubordination. It is indeed an argument between senior command staff…. This is a police department, not a daycare.”
TROUBLE IN ENUMCLAW
The heart of the city’s case against Sortland involved two incidents that resulted in the termination and other allegations of insubordination and poor judgement.
In one 2007 incident, during a felony arrest, Sortland gave an assault rifle to Corrections Officer Chris Grant, who, according to the city, was not certified to carry the weapon. The chief stated Sortland broke the department policy and it was a liability for the city and department. The chief asked for a five-day suspension. This lead to a “no-confidence letter” from the guild regarding unfair disciplinary treatment of Sortland. The city administrator at the time, Mark Bauer, reduced the suspension to a written reprimand.
There was an allegation Sortland engineered the writing of the letter and split departmental loyalties by retaliating against those who would not sign it.
Sortland testified he was not involved with the letter and giving Grant the weapon was appropriated under the dangerous circumstances of the situation.
Another incident involved a missing cash box and ledger from the property room on Aug. 2, 2010. The funds in the cashbox were used for purchasing drugs. The missing cashbox was reported during an inspection by the state auditor.
The cashbox– which was Sortland’s responsibility – was found. According to Sortland’s testimony, Det. Grant McCall had moved the box to a more secure location.
Zoll sent an email to Sortland Aug. 3 concerning the cash box because he found out about it from the auditor rather than from Sortland. The chief wanted an accounting from Sortland as to where the funds were and the places searched.
The termination document stated the box was found Aug. 4, which precipitated an incident that resulted in Sortland being fired.
Zoll was in Lt. Bob Huebler’s office. Sortland went to the office to discuss the cashbox and self-audits of the property room Zoll said needed to be done annually.
An argument broke out between the two when Sortland stated Zoll had told him to stop doing self-audits. Zoll said that was not true.
As the argument continued, Zoll told Sortland the discussion was over. Sortland was standing between the door and Zoll, next to a conference table.
City documents stated Zoll ordered Sortland to get out of the way, but Sortland remained with his arms crossed, blocking the chief’s path. When the chief squeezed past Sortland, the lieutenant said the chief touched his chest. Sortland requested assault charges be filed against Zoll.
The Auburn Police were called to investigate the charge and determined there was not an assault.
Other issues that came out during the two-day hearing included allegations of a hostile work environment created by Sortland and sexual harassment and discrimination. The sexual harassment and discrimination allegations involved Police Officer Nona Zilbauer and Corrections Officer Amber Brunelle.
The city recently settled a claim of sexual harassment, discrimination and fraud by Zilbauer and Brunelle for $15,000 each. Named as defendants in the Brunelle claim were Sortland, Sgt. Tyler Chilman, Officer Chris Grant, the police department and the city. Zilbauer’s claim was the same except Grant was not named.
Zilbauer testified on video at the hearing, stating while in corrections and supervised by Sortland and Chilman she was under extreme pressure and any mistake was magnified to make her look bad. The scrutiny, she said, stemmed from her being a woman.
Zilbauer said she didn’t report the problems to the chief because, “I was of afraid of getting a lot more pressure than I was already getting from Sortland and a lot more backlash. I just wanted my job.”
IN THE OFFICE
The Aug. 4 incident in Huebler’s office brought conflicting testimony.
Huebler was the only other witness to the incident and testified for the city.
“I could tell that the chief was ready to leave the room,” Huebler said. “But Mr. Sortland just stood there, arms crossed. As a matter of fact, in watching, observing his (Sortland’s) physical demeanor, it was more of a challenging demeanor… I could tell this was not a normal discussion. This was one where he was actually angry.”
He thought Sortland was angry about the chief requiring that Sortland perform self-audits of the property room. Sortland was contending the chief had told him to stop.
“The chief has never told us as managers not to do something like self-audits,” Huebler said. “Self-audits are a very good thing.”
Huebler described the contact between the chief and Sortland.
“The chief told him to get out of the way and he did not,” Huebler said. “The chief turned to go sideways and he had to fit through an area about 6 or 8 inches deep.”
After the chief passed, Huebler said Sortland tapped his chest and said that was an assault and he wanted Huebler to file charges.
Huebler said he told Sortland, “That was not an assault. You need to settle down.”
Zoll’s testified he told Sortland, “Eric, why would I tell you to stop doing self-audits? I’m a proponent of self-audits.”
The chief described the encounter as escalating at that point.
“He started getting very angry,” Zoll said. “His voice went way up. He started getting very angry. He moved toward me between the desk and the table we’ve been talking about today. Stood there, his feet were apart, his chest was out, his arms were crossed. It’s the same stance he would take in front of my door from time to time and I knew where we were going.”
Zoll said he told Sortland the conversation was over and told him to get out of the way.
“There was a slight opening to his left side,” Zoll said. “I turned sideways. My goal was to not have any contact… there was a touch. It was inadvertent. He turned sideways and started yelling at the top of his lungs, ‘You touched me. You touched me. That’s assault.’ And I just kept going out of the office.”
Sortland took the stand Saturday and gave a very different account of the incident.
He described the disagreement over the auditing by the police department, stating Zoll told him to stop the self-audits for budget reasons.
“It went back and forth for a brief period of time with both our voices raised,” Sortland said. “We were roughly 6 to 8 feet away…. And then he said I don’t want to argue about this anymore or I’m done arguing about this with you. My response was so am I. And it was a stop…. Then he took a step or two toward me. I could tell he had no intention of getting, walking by me…. Instead he got approximately 8 to 12 inches from my face. I could smell and feel his breath. He was that close.”
According to Sortland the chief began the argument again and then told him to get out of the way.
“From the time he said get out of my way, to the time he made contact with me was approximately one second,” Sortland said. “He didn’t just brush me. He struck me with his chest, left chest kind of stomach area with enough force where I stepped back with my left foot to regain my balance.”
OPENING THE GATES
Beyond the disputed office incident, the cashbox and no-confidence letter, the two days of testimony saw a public airing of many of the simmering problems inside the department.
Many of the city’s police officers attended the hearing, particularly Saturday. The tension was evident from the opening remarks to the closing arguments.
There were allegations of the department being divided into camps, one side for Zoll and one for Sortland.
Among those called to testify was Mark Leitl, a detective who shared an office with Sortland in 2006.
Concerning women police officers Leitl said, “He voiced time and time again… women are only good for interviewing children. They would not make good police officers because they are weak and cannot protect you on the street. And his prowess, his conquest for women – he talked about a lot.”
Leitl said he became upset with Sortland making disrespectful remarks and expressing contempt about Zoll over a period of time, calling the chief a liar and a coward.
The detective said he confronted Sortland during a training class in Portland, stating the problem was Sortland and not Zoll. Following the confrontation, Leitl said, Sortland quit speaking to him for the next two years he was the supervisor. He said during the period Sortland did not provide proper backup during operations.
Sortland denied the allegations, stating it would not be possible for the two to work together and not speak.
Chilman, who works in corrections, testified for Sortland on Saturday, stating he felt Sortland was often ignored by the chief.
“It looked like Lt. Sortland was left out of the loop,” Chilman said. “As far as the chain of command goes I thought that was very unfair, to sort of isolate someone like that.”
Chilman said he received a letter of reprimand following an interview by attorney Don Austin who investigated for the city following allegations of a hostile work environment, sexual discrimination and harassment.
Chilman said he felt the reprimand was “totally unfair.”
During direct testimony, Purtzer asked Chilman if he was concerned about testifying because many Enumclaw police officers were in the audience.
“Yeah, I’m afraid,” Chilman said. “Afraid for my future employment. I’ve been disciplined. That will be further explored for any little thing I do…. It seems like any suggestion I make, anything I do. I feel like I’m under extreme scrutiny.”
Chilman also stated on the stand he thought Sortland could be vindictive.
“We’ve had our issues and butted heads,” Chilman said.
Purtzer closed by stating there were not grounds for a suspension or termination.
“He has been a lieutenant since 1997,” Purtzer said. “To suggest that all of a sudden he has run amok and gone afoul and is engaging in this kind of conduct is not really (in) his record. It simply is not there. That there is a difference in opinion between the chief and Lt. Sortland, so be it.”
In closing, Krugler said there was reason and cause to terminate Sortland and asked the commission to uphold the city and chief’s decision.
“If Lt. Sortland is allowed to not pay consequences for what he did in Lt. Huebler’s office, this department is going to be chaos,” Kugler said.
The commission has 30 days to render a decision in this case.
Either side can appeal the commission ruling to the King County Superior Court.