Investigation backs Gresham discrimination, harassment claims
Accusations made by a prominent Gresham city employee about years of mistreatment, harassment and abuse while working at the Gresham Police Department and City Hall have been substantiated by a third-party, independent investigation.
Last summer Gresham City Council hired Paula Barran, of Barran Liebman LLP, to look into alleged incidents occurring within several city departments. At the request of the Gresham City Attorney's Office, the Portland-based law firm undertook an investigation into dueling complaints filed by Deputy City Manager Corey Falls and Chief of Police Robin Sells; the implementation and subsequent failure of 21st Century Policing strategies; and the effort to create an internal equity and inclusion plan.
At its conclusion, the report substantiates claims made by Falls while finding Sells' complaints to be unfounded. It also describes apathy and resistance to police trainings and other teachings around fostering a diverse and welcoming atmosphere within Gresham.
The investigation report lays out a pattern of hostility, scorn, attempts to undermine Falls' authority, and false and damaging rumors being spread about him throughout City Hall and the community.
The report concludes Falls never received support to successfully implement his 21st Century Policing program, which he was initially hired to complete. The investigation found it was likely that Falls' race played a role in his poor treatment, as did his focus on issues of racial bias within the department. His work on diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives were also factors in his negative reception.
Furthermore, the report says, his poor treatment was, at times, fostered, permitted or tolerated by Chief Sells. The report says Sells retaliated against Falls for perceived slights. It also highlighted a lack of clarity or proper response from former City Manager Erik Kvarsten or other city leaders when Falls came to them with his concerns.
Overall, Falls, a Black man attempting to implement new programs within the Gresham Police Department and City Hall at the behest of Gresham City Council, was met with a culture of disrespect, investigators wrote.
The investigation led to the city providing more than 10,000 pages of documentation, nearly 90 pages of exhibits and 26 interviews. Investigators spoke with current and former city councilors; former mayors Shane Bemis and Karylinn Echols; staff within City Hall and the Gresham Police Department; and elected state officials representing the community.
Former Police Chief Craig Junginger declined to participate in the report, and former City Manager Kvarsten declined to be interviewed, though he later responded with written statements. Current Mayor Travis Stovall also declined to be interviewed citing a lack of information about events occurring before he took office.
After a special meeting of the Gresham City Council on Tuesday, Feb. 9, the 100-page report was unsealed and released. The vote to unseal the report was unanimous, and the documents can be accessed by the public at GreshamOregon.gov/Investigation.
With the report in hand, the city will begin the process of determining what actions to take in the wake of the findings. That is a task for Interim City Manager David Clyne. The City Council and mayor have no authority over matters of discipline. The city will also begin looking into organizational changes in light of what was discovered through the investigation.
21st Century failure
Falls arrived in Gresham in 2017 to serve as the director of police services and 21st century policing.
He was to act as a conduit between Kvarsten and Sells, examining data driven and evidence-based practices the police could implement. The goal was to eliminate potential bias within local law enforcement. Part of his hiring included an understanding that upon completion of his 21st Century Policing report, he would transition into a new role as superintendent of public safety — overseeing both the Police and Fire Departments.
Upon being hired, he told The Outlook he was "very pleased with the innovative approach the city of Gresham is taking to provide police services."
But that attitude changed after beginning his work. He later wrote to council that when he submitted his plans for reforms, none of his ideas were implemented. He said city leadership did not listen to his voice, support him, or commit to implementing any changes within the police department.
"People of color at the city of Gresham have been impacted and harmed by subtle racism," Falls wrote to council.
According to the investigation, when Falls first accepted his position he requested a meeting with Kvarsten and Sells to ensure there was clarity about his role. Among the concerns from the police department was that he had been a finalist for Chief of Police, a job that instead went to Sells. He drove to Gresham for the scheduled meeting, but learned Kvarsten had canceled it without explanation. The report found Sells was unaware she would be reporting to Falls once his plan was completed.
Falls later reported that Chief Sells was "not a fan" of his employment, and that he thought her treatment of him was unprofessional. Emails between Sells and former Fire Chief Greg Matthews appeared to undermine Falls' various initiatives, often questioning his qualifications and speculating Falls was trying to justify his position.
Four months into his employment, Falls asked Assistant City Manager Rachael Fuller to set up a meeting to improve communications between himself and Chief Sells. That meeting was never held, and in May 2017 Sells told Falls that "nobody in the department knew what he was doing and nobody cared what he was doing."
The investigation agreed that Falls' strategic plan he submitted in 2017 was never fully implemented. That has remained true to this day — though some of his suggestions, such as body cameras for officers, have been utilized. At the time Sells sent an email to the police department that further attempts to introduce the plan were at an end and that the status quo would not change.
In the report, a command level police employee said if felt like the 21st Century Policing strategy had "died a slow death" and had been forgotten. Others described it as being abandoned.
The report attributes this failure due to strong resistance within the police department and inadequate management of the conflict by the city manager.
Timeline of concerns
In 2018 Gresham City Council committed to adopting a robust equity and inclusion strategy, but the report highlights several incidents between the police department and those plans.
Within the Gresham Police Department, the report found that all of those interviewed expressed strong support for diversity and equity. But most believed the department was already meeting or exceeding those goals. There was strong resistance to formal training and programs, and police employees tended to dismiss complaints as coming from people who were "too sensitive."
Falls spoke with Kvarsten about his growing concern around the police department's opposition to the city's diversity, equity and inclusion initiative.
The report found:
— In 2015 the city hired Try Excellence LLC, helmed by Bishop Steven Holt, to implement the "Listening Lab and Talking Session." The program was to improve public safety services to a culturally diverse population. During one of the earliest gatherings, at which then-Deputy Chief Sells was in attendance, Officer and Union President Matt Fagan interrupted Holt to say, "who the f___ are you" and asked who he was "to tell me what to do."
A later session had a police captain assign Holt homework so that he could talk "rationally" about the subject. No corrective actions were taken by the department or city. Soon after, Sells reduced the scope of work contracted with Holt and eventually ceased scheduling trainings.
Holt said during an interview with investigators that he was frustrated by the trainings and he was set up to fail.
Holt later returned to the city in the summer of 2016, motivated by national events and the "Hands Up" movement. He hosted an initial meeting with 200 community attendees and about 40 officers. The report found officers claimed those issues between the public and police did not happen in Gresham, and that "this is not Portland," and "that isn't us." Holt told officers that was not what the community was saying, and that, "Black people don't feel safe around you."
— In May 2018, Sells presented a slide show at an awards banquet. The slides used the theme, "Gnome Lives Matter," a play on how members of the department had kidnapped her garden gnome gifted by family. In an interview with The Outlook, she spoke about the prank and shared some of the photos.
"At an awards banquet the gnome was still missing in action, so I said 'folks, it's time to return my gnome, as gnome lives matter also," she wrote.
The report found the overwhelming view of those at the banquet was it was a lighthearted joke, and described as "incredibly positive."
— In the summer of 2018 several city employees questioned the use of a sombrero drawing on a police picnic invitation. After learning of the complaints, the department announced it would no longer coordinate the lunch.
— Upon the formation of the Equity Action Team, Sells notified Falls in late 2018 that she expected postings by the team on an internal website to be removed, stating she was "dealing with a plethora of upset employees." She went on to write the team's articles and comments "have set us back and that hurt will linger with the men and women of this organization for a long, long time."
— The report covered an email sent from former Fire Chief Matthews to Chief Sells about a request from Falls about questions used during hiring. The email included, "And the hits just keep coming," and it was "another awkward request where he's searching for something to do." The report touched on a series of email exchanges between Sells and Matthews, which "denigrated (Falls') work and the value of his position."
During a 2018 public safety meeting, attended by Falls, Sells and Matthews, the report found that Sells turned her back to Falls and when asked questions gave short and curt responses. Matthews later told Sells that "you are better than this," and she needed to get along with Falls.
— In 2019 the Gresham Police Officers Association made a vote of no confidence in Superintendent of Public Safety Falls. That was the first time a vote of that nature had occurred. Later that year Falls was promoted to deputy city manager.
— In June 2020, Chief Sells gave notice of her retirement — a move that proved temporary and had witnesses disagreeing on what led to the decision.
In the report Councilor Eddy Morales contacted Sells to arrange a meeting. She told him she was being forced out. She said Mayor Bemis had warned her of people "coming for you" because of racism, and she would be dragged from the organization through the mud. In the conversation, Sells said Bemis warned her the opposition was being led by Morales, County Commissioner Lori Stegmann, Falls, and Black Lives Matter.
When Morales denied efforts to have her removed, Sells said she believed Mayor Bemis "had played her."
Bemis told investigators a different version of events. He spoke of a respectful working relationship with Sells, and that he wanted to give a heads up about potential activism or protests. He emphasized he had not attempted to encourage her termination.
Morales also spoke in the report that Bemis did not want Falls to be hired as interim city manager because he would not be willing to fire Sells. Morales encouraged Sells to return — which she did a few weeks later.
In the meantime, after the resignations/retirements of Sells, Kvarsten and Bemis, Falls received voice mail messages from a Gresham business owner calling him a "race-baiter" and several expletives.
Another resident of color received threatening messages after contacting former Mayor Bemis with concerns about what was happening in the city. The Gresham Police chaplain, speaking as a private citizen, sent the resident a message saying what the person had done was "reprehensible" and "will not be forgotten," and that "you have awoken a sleeping giant and that was a fatal flaw to your political career." The report did not name the private citizen.
Overall, the report found that while some were supportive of diversity, equity and inclusion measures, there was resistance and refusal to accept the need for such programs within the Gresham Police Department. The investigation uncovered denial, resistance to change, scorn and ridicule, and outrage from officers and department leadership.
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