Council addresses police concerns

Alexis Barker, NLJ News Editor

Questions and concerns surrounding the resignation of former Newcastle Police Chief Sam Keller and the decision to have Mayor Pam Gualtieri and Councilman Don Steveson assume his duties came to a head on June 20 during the City Council’s regularly scheduled meeting (see City Council Minutes). 

As previously reported, Keller resigned suddenly after a domestic assault arrest on May 30, and during the meeting Gualtieri attempted to address questions and concerns raised by the News Letter Journal through recent coverage and an editorial about the issue. 

There was other criticism of the mayor and council’s actions, however, as Councilman Lance Miles, police officer Peg Miles and Rebecca Tacy, officer Levi Tacy’s wife, also raised concerns about the handling of the situation. Councilman Tyrel Owens added his voice to the discussion, expressing his own misgivings about the lack of communication with the rest of the council in regards to the arrest, resignation and subsequent decision to not have current a police officer serve as interim chief. Owens noted that he was not privy to a lot of the information and that he did not appreciate the whole council not being consulted about the resignation and decisions made in the aftermath of the incident, although he acknowledged the situation as being unprecedented. 

“In regards to the police department, I’d like to make sure the public knows that the council is 100% behind the police department,” Gualtieri said, suggesting that coverage of the issue had given the perception that the council did not have faith in the police department. 

“We do have faith in our department. Yes, I agree that the council could always be more transparent in communicating with the public,” she added. 

According to Gualtieri, the council did not violate any laws in not officially accepting Keller’s resignation during an open meeting. In fact, she admitted that the council did not actually take the action of accepting his resignation through email, saying instead that “it was just acknowledged.”

Stating that he was interested in maintaining a level of government transparency, however, Steveson motioned and encouraged the council to formally accept Keller’s resignation during last Monday’s meeting. While he too indicated that
he did not believe the council broke Wyoming’s open meetings or public records laws by not formally accepting the resignation at their previous meeting,
he acknowledged that the council had changed customary procedure as resignations from chiefs had formerly been considered and accepted during open public meetings. After considerable discussion, the council unanimously approved the motion to formally accept Keller’s resignation.

In addition to voicing his own transparency concerns, Councilman Miles also expressed dissatisfaction with the decision to not turn to an active member of the department to assume the chief’s responsibilities until a permanent replacement is hired. Miles particularly questioned Gualtieri’s description of the police force as being “young,” specifically noting that two of the department’s remaining officers have over 15 years of experience. 

“I think when I said that, I meant that three officers are under five years (experience),” Gualtieri said. “And there are only two over that.” 

She later explained that there were issues with each of those two officers when she considered an appointment of an interim chief, and that is why she and Steveson decided instead to jointly assume the responsibility for running the department.

According to Gualtieri, veteran officer Levi Tacy was not selected to fill the role of interim chief, despite holding the rank of sergeant,  because he had informed her several times that he was glad he was not the chief. She noted that on several occasions before Keller’s resignation, Tacy indicated that he  wanted to finish up his 20 years with the department and move into a position where he could use his degree. 

She indicated that another officer, Richard Hillhouse, was passed over because of situations with Wyoming POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training). Gualtieri noted that Hillhouse has since resigned and was no longer with the department. 

(Editor's Note: Mayor Gualtieri has requested clarification that she did not specifically name Hillhouse in the meeting, but she did not deny that she was referring to him. She did confirm that Hillhouse resigned and was no longer with the department.)

A third officer that might have been appointed interim chief, Peg Miles, was not selected because she had not kept up on field training hours and had pulled out of other ranking testing, according to Gualtieri. The mayor told Officer Miles during the meeting that she had not even considered talking to her about being interim chief, despite Miles possessing more than 20 years of experience.

Gualtieri noted that a statement she made to the News Letter Journal pertaining to the officers not having the proper POST certification “may have come out wrong.” 

Councilman Miles was not satisfied with the explanations, and said that members of the public had joined him in expressing concerns over individuals who had never been police officers running the department. 

“I’ve talked to people in the city that do have a problem with two non-sworn people, who have never put the cuffs on anyone,” he said. 

He noted that he wanted to go on the record that he disagrees with the interim chief situation, despite the legal nature of what is taking place.

“I would feel more comfortable with someone who has been through the academy, a sworn officer in charge,” Miles added. 

Gualtieri responded that Stevenson and she are not necessarily “interim” chiefs. It is, in fact, the police committee, she said, that would be addressing any administrative issues. Steveson noted that the chain of command in the department still goes through Sergeant Tacy. 

“We had a meeting with the police department and they (officers) were asked to continue operating the way you were. Tacy is doing the schedule and will continue to do so. Everyone is doing the work they were doing, and they were asked to continue the best they can. The only thing that has changed is the chief position,” Gualtieri said. 

She said that the city is working with the Wyoming Association of Sheriffs and Chiefs of Police (WASCOP) to find an interim chief and/or replacement chief. She said that organization is  developing a job description for the position. 

After advertising for the position, the association will go through the applications and conduct the first round of interviews, and the council will become involved after the first round, according to Gualtieri. She noted that local officers are not restricted from applying for the chief position.

“They will send us the applications to do the second round of interviews,” she said. “As we have done in the past, we will have them come in and ask them questions. The whole process will be done the same. Besides, we are bringing in WASCOP to do the initial interview, we have never done that before.”

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