Morale at issue in Breck PD | SummitDaily.com
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Morale at issue in Breck PD

Reid Williams

BRECKENRIDGE – A survey of officers in the Breckenridge Police Department that revealed “very low” morale points to the managerial style of the chief as its source.

The report prompted Chief Rick Holman to take the entire department out of the office for a two-day training session June 25 and 26, in part to address some of those issues. Holman said Wednesday steps are being taken to build trust and stronger relationships in his organization, but officers’ concerns might also be tied to a shift in philosophy away from traditional police culture to a community-oriented one.

Some officers, however, are skeptical anything will change.

“To be honest, I wasn’t surprised by the survey,” Holman said.

Colorado Mountain College’s Business Solutions Program conducted the survey. The survey’s original intent was an assessment of the department’s training needs. But, officers’ concerns quickly surfaced, CMC’s John Karis wrote in a summary. The report says “the chief’s managerial style creates a significant and insurmountable gulf between himself and personnel, a gulf which disallows effective communication and a healthy working relationship.”

“Further,” the summary states, “this style supports and empowers itself by generating fear of punishment and retribution, rather than support; distance and personal indifference, rather than personal contact and interest.”

Holman said he can see how his subordinates developed that perception. After taking the top cop position in Breckenridge in December 2000, Holman said, he spent a lot of effort mending relationships with the community that had suffered under his predecessor. He set up a police community advisory board and got involved with community initiatives and nonprofits.

The effort paid off, as far as citizens were concerned. In September 2001, the police department released the results of a town survey used to gauge residents’ opinions. Written comments applauded what they saw as a change in the right direction at the department.

“It never dawned on me that I should be doing this same thing internally,” Holman said.

A hiring choice and an incident with a well-known Breckenridge resident fueled the inner-departmental fire. Earlier this year, Holman hired Nicola Erb to fill a vacant sergeant position. Erb was forced to leave her position at Vail Police Department when her husband, Dwight Henninger, was hired as Vail’s chief. Vail has a nepotism rule. Henninger and Holman are friends and have worked together on community policing projects.

Only one internal candidate applied for the position, but “everyone else was discouraged from applying,” said a Breckenridge officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The feeling was the chief made a big effort to hire his friend’s wife without a fair hiring process,” the officer said. “Though, in all fairness, she is qualified.”

The second incident involved the arrest of longtime Breckenridge resident and former bar owner Shamus O’Toole Oct. 30 following a dispute with a musician. According to a police report, O’Toole wouldn’t release the musician’s equipment because he said the band owed him money. Officers explained it was a civil matter and told him holding the equipment could be considered theft. O’Toole held his ground and then struggled with officers when they attempted to arrest him. O’Toole was maced and a female officer received stitches in her knee.

The District Attorney’s office decided not to file charges of felony theft against O’Toole and threw out a charge of resisting arrest. Instead, O’Toole was issued a disorderly conduct citation.

Officers accused the chief of going easy on O’Toole.

“That’s not true at all,” said Summit County Assistant District Attorney Mark Hurlbert. “That was an independent review of the facts of the case, I did it, and the charges weren’t warranted.”

But the incident left officers with a sense that Holman “will not back officers on judgment calls,” the anonymous officer said. “And as a result, officers are afraid to make decisions in the field.”

Holman said the two-day training session was the beginning of steps to change that officer’s – and others’ – perception. The chief pulled the staff together June 25 and 26 to work with the Fisher Consulting Group. The Vail-based organization conducts workshops to determine what’s working and what isn’t and to discuss concepts such as personal responsibility and organizational commitment.

The event cost about $10,000 for consulting fees and to pay for sheriff’s deputies filling in for Breckenridge officers, Holman said. But, he said if the workshops keep one person from quitting, they will pay for themselves in the cost it takes to train and outfit a new officer.

Holman also said he hopes to develop a departmental policy manual, which could alleviate some officers’ concerns.

“It’s building trust,” Holman said. “You can’t just say that; it’s based on actions. I have to create a mechanism to make people feel their input is valued. Somebody should feel comfortable saying, “I don’t agree,’ without fear of retaliation. But I believe we all have to take personal responsibility if we want things to get better. Organizations don’t change, people do.”

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998 ext. 237 or rwilliams@summitdaily.com.


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