Former employees of Police Department back up claim of retaliation

San Francisco recently agreed to pay a former police attorney $725,000 to settle her whistleblower lawsuit claiming the police chief fired her in retaliation for an investigation she conducted into his mishandling of a domestic violence case.

The City and Chief Greg Suhr have said Kelly O’Haire and two others laid off at the time had been let go to make up for a deficit in the department’s finances. Suhr, who didn’t respond to requests for comment, has said the other allegations are unfounded.

But according to court filings and interviews, several people who worked at the department in Suhr’s early days as chief in 2011, and had connections to O’Haire, claim they were retaliated against by Suhr.

“I don’t feel like we were wanted,” said Rick Nichelman, a former Vallejo police officer who worked in an administrative job with the department from 2009 to 2011 as part of a civilianization of the force.

Nichelman said the Police Officers Association saw him and O’Haire as outsiders taking positions from sworn officers and going against department grain by trying to reform a very traditional force.

Nichelman, who worked in administrative services during his time at the department, was laid off soon after O’Haire without warning, along with Jerry Tidwell, who worked alongside O’Haire. According to court documents, another person who worked with O’Haire said she too was the target of Suhr’s retaliation.

“It’s something that sticks with you forever,” said Nichelman of his summary dismissal soon after O’Haire’s. “I’ve never been laid off.”

A declaration by a Sgt. Paget Mitchell, whose wife worked in internal affairs with O’Haire, alleged she was retaliated against for telling her commander she didn’t want to work under Suhr.

“I went to Captain Greg McEachern and told him I would not work for Suhr. As my job required direct interaction with the chief, I told him I felt Suhr was unethical and I would rather go back to patrol than work with Suhr directly.”

What followed, noted in her deposition, was an investigation launched by internal affairs from an anonymous complaint. Mitchell said she was told that “someone filed an anonymous complaint that said I might have information about criminal activity in Suhr’s command staff.”

She was later transferred to Park Station to work the graveyard shift.

“I fully believe that this was simply done to intimidate me,” said Mitchell.

According to court documents and Nichelman, many of people in high positions under then-Chief George Gascon were demoted when Suhr took over.

One of those people was interim Chief Jeff Godown, who held the position after Gascon left. Godown, who said Suhr at least gave him a job, was not only demoted as soon as Suhr became chief, but also lost his status as a sworn officer and was shunted into a civilian job in the records department.

“Quite frankly, I was devastated by it,” the longtime cop told The San Francisco Examiner. But Godown, who now heads the Oakland Unified School District’s police force, said every change of leadership involves a shuffle of the cards. “I’m on both sides of the fence. I was one of the people brought in to effect change,” he said. “When we left, that change had stopped. It would go back to the way it was.”

O’Haire’s complaint alleges that in an open meeting at the Hall of Justice celebrating Suhr’s appointment, then-POA President Gary Delagnes gleefully spoke about O’Haire’s departure.

“‘We got rid of the ones we didn’t like [referring to O’Haire, Tidwell and Nichelman] — the only people fired in the alleged budgetary reductions,” O’Haire claims Delagnes said, according to the filings. Nichelman corroborated O’Haire’s story of the event.

That same union, according to filings, negotiated a deal with Gascon for a five-day suspension for Suhr over his handling of the domestic violence case instead of dismissal, as was recommended by the previous chief, Heather Fong.

Delagnes, currently a consultant for the union, denied the comments and said he doesn’t recall any negotiation to reduce Suhr’s discipline.

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