Special Reports

Tacoma police chief 'lied to citizens,' review board member says

The only former cop on a citizen panel charged with reviewing the Tacoma Police Department’s policies and procedures told Police Chief Don Ramsdell this week she believes he lied to the community about why his department delayed issuing an Amber Alert in the Zina Linnik case in 2007.

“I’m really disappointed, chief,” Trisha King Stargel, one of six members on the city’s Citizen Review Panel, told Ramsdell Monday, as captured on an audio recording made public Thursday. “I cannot begin to tell you how disappointed I am in your behavior.”

“I will admit freely that this is one of the biggest buttons I’ve got – is when I get lied to,” King Stargel added. “And that to me is exactly what happened. And I want to ask you: How is it we now – as a panel, as representatives of the citizens – move forward with you across from us?”

Ramsdell, who was joined at the meeting by City Manager Eric Anderson, responded to King Stargel: “I’m obviously sorry that you feel that way.”

“As we do move forward, I will obviously put forth the best effort that I can regarding the policies and procedures that we put before you,” the chief said. “I guess my actions will have to speak louder than my words. I know it will take time.”

The May 3 discussion about the chief’s actions in the Linnik case came during this month’s regularly scheduled meeting of the citizen panel. The six-member, City Council-appointed body was formed in the aftermath of the Chief David Brame scandal. Charged with providing advice to city officials on police policy issues, the panel’s mission is “to ensure transparency and accountability in the way that the City of Tacoma Police Department operates,” according to the city’s website.

King Stargel, a police officer for 24 years who’s now a Seattle University criminal justice lecturer and a police training consultant, requested the discussion with Ramsdell be added to the panel’s agenda. Her request came after reports in The News Tribune recently revealed the chief and department spokesman Mark Fulghum misled the public about why it took the department 12 hours to issue the alert following Linnik’s abduction in 2007.

Part of the reason for the delay was because Fulghum fell back to sleep after being called and requested to issue the alert – a detail that no city official publicly revealed until two weeks ago. Ramsdell and Fulghum had previously told reporters the alert hadn’t been issued faster because more police work needed to be done first.

After the newspaper reported the true details about the delay, Ramsdell offered a public admission and apology. Anderson, supported by the council, initially said no further action needed to be taken. A few days later, after the newspaper requested Fulghum’s pay records for the day of the delayed alert – records that show he was on “standby” duty at the time – Anderson announced he had reprimanded the chief. Anderson also said the city would conduct an internal investigation of Fulghum and request an outside evaluation of the entire Linnik investigation.

On Wednesday, Mayor Marilyn Strickland said she is working with the City Attorney’s office to identify an outside investigator. The council will ultimately decide the investigation’s scope, she said.

“Anyone who touched this case” could be part of the investigation, Strickland said. That includes Anderson and City Attorney Elizabeth Pauli, she confirmed.

During the citizen review panel meeting Monday, Chairman Michael West and member John LaFond both commented they did not believe the panel had any standing in questioning the chief’s veracity. Other than engaging in a discussion, the panel took no action in the matter.

Unlike citizen police oversight bodies in many other mid- and large-sized U.S. cities, Tacoma’s Citizen Review Panel has no real oversight authority over individual officer disciplinary cases. Rather, the body serves solely as an advisory panel on general policy issues. It can review complaint trends, policies and procedures and offer suggestions to the city manager, council and chief. But the board’s advice doesn’t require further action.

The panel’s work as it relates to the chief’s situation involved reviewing a 2008 draft version of the department’s Amber Alert policy after the Linnik case, which ultimately prompted TPD’s first-ever alert. Among other changes, TPD’s revised policy now allows any officer ranked sergeant or above to issue such an Amber Alert. Initially, only Fulghum had been authorized to do so.

Christian Clegg, a city staffer assigned to the panel, noted to members Monday that, other than making suggestions about the draft policy, the panel did not review other any other information related to the case. The department’s after-action report on the Linnik case, which generally criticized the department’s handling of the Amber Alert – but did not mention Fulghum’s sleep-induced delay – was not presented to the Citizen Review Panel, Clegg said.

“I guess from that I conclude that no misrepresentation was issued to the panel,” said LaFond, a retired lawyer and former professor at the University of Puget Sound and Seattle University law schools.

“We as a panel, I don’t believe we have a place to say whether the chief lied or did not lie,” West added. “…I think it lies outside of our purview, honestly.”

But King Stargel said she felt compelled to raise the issue as a former officer and a Tacoma citizen.

“I want to be really clear. I am not saying that Chief Ramsdell lied to the panel,” she said. “I’m saying he lied to the citizens. And as a representative of the citizens, that is the task that I’m looking at.”

King Stargel, who also serves on the board charged with revoking state-required police officer certifications, also told Ramsdell his actions are of the kind that get officers fired and licenses revoked.

“I find it difficult to understand how an individual with your rank can do something that would get somebody else fired,” she said.

Throughout the discussion, Anderson vociferously defended the chief, noting he still had “full faith in the police chief’s ability to execute his duties as he should.”

The city manager added he did not believe the chief’s actions amounted to lying. He also pointed out that his reprimand of the chief was for failing to share pertinent information, not for dishonesty.

“If I believe that he lied, I would fire him,” Anderson said. “… I do not believe that he did that.”

Anderson added conclusions about the chief are being drawn largely from newspaper coverage, which, he said, “has not been, in my opinion, complete.”

“So, I would caution that there are other facts that I’m aware of that exist that led me to believe that (Ramsdell) did not lie,” Anderson said.

Asked Thursday to clarify what those “other facts” were, city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff said Anderson believes The News Tribune has focused too much on Fulghum’s falling asleep, which amounted to only part of the alert’s delay. There were also other contributing factors, McNair-Huff said, including investigating what turned out to be the wrong suspect, verifying descriptive information and a two-hour processing lag-time that it took the State Patrol to disseminate the alert after Tacoma requested it.

Lewis Kamb: 253-597-8542 lewis.kamb@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics