Casper city manager, police chief recording reveals police department politics

2014-05-06T08:00:00Z Casper city manager, police chief recording reveals police department politicsBy PATRICK SIMONAITIS Casper Star-Tribune The Billings Gazette

The selection of Jim Wetzel as the chief of the Casper Police Department on Feb. 28 may have led to the departure of at least one police veteran and stirred some discord within the department, according to statements made during a recorded phone conversation between City Manager John Patterson and Wetzel.

A recording of that conversation between Wetzel and Patterson was turned over to the Star-Tribune last month following a request for city records made possible under state open-records laws. That request was made in relation to Patterson’s request that Wetzel check the license plates of a car a city councilwoman believed belonged to Councilman Craig Hedquist. Hedquist is currently suing the city in federal court over alleged civil rights violations. His suit alludes to the Wetzel-Patterson conversation about the license plate check.

Initially, only a portion of that taped conversation was released. Subsequently, however, in late April, the entirety of a roughly 15-minute talk between the two was turned over, revealing discussions about the internal politics at the department between the two city leaders on March 5, five days after Wetzel was named chief.

The conversation initially turned to Councilman Keith Goodenough and his position supporting the legalization of marijuana before delving into a discussion about Wetzel’s promotion to chief, a topic Patterson brings up by quoting his wife’s hairdresser.

“My wife was having her hair done … last night,” Patterson said on the recording, “and (the hairdresser) said, ‘Man I am so glad that the' -- and she called them the ‘Pagel politicians’ -- 'are gone.’ And (the hairdresser) said, ‘You know, when he (former Casper Police Chief Tom Pagel) came in, he promoted all his buddies, all these politicians, not really police folk, and I’m just so glad they’re going to be gone now.’”

Pagel was Casper police chief from 2002-2011. At the time of his retirement, he had hired 60 out of the 93 sworn officers in the department.

In the recording, Patterson named two officers who had put in their retirement: Capt. Mark Trimble and Lt. Brad Wnuk.

Trimble was interim chief prior to Wetzel’s appointment and had taken over after former Chief Chris Walsh retired. Trimble officially retired last week after 20 years with the department during a ceremony Friday.

Multiple attempts to reach Trimble on Monday were unsuccessful.

Wnuk said he has put in his intention to retire from the department in January 2015. He declined to comment further.

On the recording, Patterson said he did not realize that the hairdresser was so well informed on Casper politics and called her a “political junkie,” before saying, “I don’t know how she knows that Pagel’s politicians are leaving, but, man, she did.”

In an interview last week, Patterson called the term “Pagel’s politicians” “not fair and not appropriate.”

He said he initially did not know who the term referred to when he used it, but later assumed it was one of the internal candidates who interviewed for the position of chief. Those internal candidates were Trimble and Wnuk.

He then said that it was “not how I feel about these gentlemen and not how I classify them.”

He also said that he had only said the term because the hairdresser had used it and that he repeated it in the course of conversation “out of ease of identifying who was discussed.”

In an interview Monday afternoon, Wetzel said it was a term Patterson was reciting and that he would not speculate who that person he was quoting was referring to.

“It’s not a phrase I would have used to identify anybody,” Wetzel said.

Wetzel responded on the recording by saying he considers it “rumors” until an officer had officially come to him with their plan to retire, but that there are “a handful of those that we’ve discussed that are scrambling to try and come up with funds to, as you said, vote with their feet.”

On the recording, Patterson also relayed information from a conversation he had had with Mike Burnett, a longtime Casper law enforcement official and the current local director of United Way.

Burnett reportedly told Patterson he believed more people other than Trimble and Wnuk would be leaving the department.

Patterson told Wetzel, “I didn’t say anything but I thought, ‘Good.’”

On the recording, Patterson then said it will give the department a chance to hire new people to fill the ranks, prompting a response from Wetzel:

“It’s going to be a particular brand, those who are leaving, that I sadly have to say are not going to be impacting ... their departure will not be impacting the forward movement of the department. Sadly enough, but so be it,” Wetzel said.

Monday, Wetzel said he has a direction he wants to take the department, which he has discussed internally.

“Whether or not their decisions to leave are in part because they don’t agree with the direction I’m taking things, I can’t speak to that,” he said.

“I don’t want to see anybody feel like they have to leave,” he said. He said the sentiment of the quote on the tape was that he planned to move the department toward his vision whether people stayed or left.

Wetzel also said the department loses an average of 10 officers in a typical year.

Last week, Patterson said that often when a police department changes leadership, there will be some turnover. He said that that turnover can be good if the people who are leaving are not necessarily on board with the direction the department is moving.

Wetzel, a lieutenant colonel on active reserve in the Marine Corps, had previously been out of the office for the two weeks leading to Monday on a military related matter and could not be reached for comment.

Upon obtaining the recording, the Star-Tribune requested records from the department as to which officers have recently retired or submitted their plans to either retire or resign from the department.

Monday, Wetzel said four officers have retired, resigned or submitted an intention to retire, but that one of those in the latter group was already planning to retire before Wetzel was named chief. He did not elaborate on the others.

Wetzel also said that some former officers were looking to return to the department after his appointment as chief.

Patterson said that both Trimble and Wnuk submitted their retirement plans the day Wetzel was named chief.

The recording was taken by the police department’s phone line. Both Patterson and Wetzel said they did not know how it became public.

Patterson also gave high praise of both Trimble and Wnuk last week. He said he “could not have gone wrong with any of the candidates” for chief.

“I have the utmost respect for Brad and Mark, and I hate to see them go,” he said.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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