Hillsboro Police worker alleges whistleblower retaliation
A longtime Hillsboro Police Department employee is accusing top officials of retaliating against her, after she raised concerns about bias and mishandling of records by city police.
Cindy Young Bolek, who has worked for the police department for 20 years, notified the department last month she planned to leave her position at the end of the year. Days later, on Oct. 8, she received a written response: She was being placed on leave through the expected date of her resignation.
Hillsboro's deputy police chief, Mike Leader, told Young Bolek that the department had already been planning for a "restructuring" of its support services division, which Young Bolek manages.
"In light of your decision to resign, we believe it is in the best interests of HPD to expedite the planned restructuring process and immediately begin relieving the stress on the division and department," Leader wrote. As such, he continued, Young Bolek was immediately placed on paid leave until her resignation is effective Jan. 1.
"Please understand that this leave is not disciplinary in nature and is not intended to be a reflection on your years of hard work and service to the city," Leader added. "Rather, it is intended to allow both you and the department to move forward in the most efficient and harmonious way possible."
Young Bolek told the News-Times she doesn't buy it.
"If I've done nothing wrong, why would they place me on this leave?" she asked rhetorically.
Young Bolek protested her leave status, describing it as "retaliation" in an email to Hillsboro City Manager Robby Hammond. She has also filed a complaint with the Oregon Bureau of Labor & Industries alleging retaliation, records show.
Asked how Hillsboro officials plan to evaluate Young Bolek's allegation of retaliation, city spokesperson Patrick Preston told the News-Times that they review all employment-related concerns from employees. He declined to comment on Young Bolek's situation directly, saying it relates to a personnel issue as well as pending litigation.
Preston declined to make top city officials, including Police Chief Jim Coleman, available for interviews.
Young Bolek also reached out to members of the Hillsboro City Council, asking them to act.
Mayor Steve Callaway declined a request for an interview about Young Bolek's concerns.
"All of that is outside the purview, if you will, of the elected officials," Callaway said. "That's the city manager's office and with HR."
City Council President Kyle Allen didn't respond to an emailed request for an interview.
In her email to city councilors as well as her BOLI complaint, Young Bolek suggested she was placed on leave as retaliation for her part in reviewing a high-profile case that has led to a federal lawsuit against the city government and members of the police department.
Part of Young Bolek's role as support services manager was to review body-worn camera footage before it can be made available to the public. That task put her in a position to discover officers' potential misconduct, she noted.
Young Bolek told the News-Times she reviewed footage captured by officers' cameras when they responded to Jean Coppedge's non-emergency call in 2019.
Coppedge, an elderly Hillsboro resident who is Black, alleged that after she called to report being assaulted by her neighbors, the responding officers conducted a biased investigation, solicited negative comments about her from several neighbors who weren't witnesses, and created an inaccurate police report portraying her as the aggressor in the altercation. That police report was then allegedly used by her landlord to evict her from her home.
Coppedge's civil suit is currently pending in federal court.
Prior to filing the lawsuit, Coppedge made a public records request for the body-worn camera videos of the officers' response, and Young Bolek reviewed the footage as required, she told the News-Times.
"What I saw on the videos made me concerned that we had violated policies and laws and that I had a duty to report those," Young Bolek said, adding that she wrote notes outlining her concerns with the officers' conduct in preparation for a meeting she had with department leadership.
After the lawsuit was filed and the evidence discovery process began, she turned over her notes to city officials, she said.
Shortly after, Young Bolek was called into a meeting with the city's risk manager and three attorneys from an insurance company used by the city.
During the meeting, the attorneys asked her to agree that her notes were produced as part of privileged attorney-client communication that would not be subject to discovery in the case, Young Bolek said.
It was a request she couldn't agree to — she had produced the notes to report her concerns about what the videos showed to department leadership long before any lawsuit had been filed, she said.
"I would not testify if called that they were created for that purpose," Young Bolek said. "I was told that if my notes were produced, I would be averse to the city and it would not look good."
A loss of confidence
Young Bolek notified Leader and Coleman in a five-page email on Oct. 2 that she planned to formally resign. The News-Times obtained a copy of that email, in which Young Bolek repeatedly referred to a 58-page report by the police consulting firm OIR Group on the Hillsboro Police Department. That report was produced following an external review of the department's policies and practices this year.
OIR made 47 recommendations. The report is a public document, along with a letter from Coleman pledging that each of its recommendations "will be carefully considered upon criteria including, but not limited to: priority, complexity, impact upon partnering entities, and opportunity for combination with other initiatives."
Not satisfied, Young Bolek wrote, "Since culture will always trump policy, I am left without confidence of a true intent to not only expect, but demand accountability moving forward following the OIR review (and) recommendations."
Young Bolek identified three primary issues: "treatment of female staff," "policy, procedure, education, training and lack of accountability," and "lack of unified leadership and support of all law enforcement services."
When she raised concerns about officer misconduct, she wrote, she was told at least once that she "(did) not understand what the officers go through."
Young Bolek has worked in law enforcement for 32 years, starting with a high school internship with the Newberg Police Department. She was a dispatcher and then a reserve police officer before going into police administrative work. She has worked for her entire time in Hillsboro as a civilian employee, not a sworn member of the force.
In her Oct. 2 email to Leader, Young Bolek also urged department leadership to address issues with body-worn cameras.
Documents obtained by the News-Times through a public records request show that at least some Hillsboro police officials were ready to move forward on new messaging and procedures for the body-worn camera program.
But Leader directed them to hold off. The News-Times reviewed a Sept. 2 email he sent to Young Bolek and other Hillsboro employees, informing them he had asked for a "brief pause" in implementing those changes.
"I know this sets us back, and I understand the associated risks with the gaps in our data and the workload it can generate. However, there are some additional things occurring right now in patrol, coupled with some messaging that I reasonably anticipate delivering tomorrow, that unfortunately lead me to the decision to pause," Leader wrote.
In that email, Leader referred to the forthcoming release of the OIR report, which he predicted — correctly — would also address body-worn cameras.
"I would like to be able to (potentially) time what is certainly a recommendation regarding muting of BWC into one bigger message/package," he wrote.
Whatever progress was made over the next month, Young Bolek wrote to Leader on Oct. 2 that there were "significant issues identified requiring correction" with the body-worn camera program, including "processes yet to be realigned or potentially developed to ensure only minimal program issues moving forward."
"This must be made the priority of police administration," she added.
One day before Leader placed her on leave, Young Bolek sent an email to Metropolitan Public Defender, one of the primary public defense firms in Hillsboro, and an invalid email address for Washington County District Attorney Kevin Barton, describing a lack of basic oversight of Hillsboro's body-worn camera program since it began in 2018 — an act she calls whistleblowing.
She copied Coleman on that email, which was also sent to the News-Times. After an inquiry from the News-Times, the District Attorney's Office received the email, which had been incorrectly addressed, from Coleman.
Young Bolek said she discovered that officers had been submitting body-worn camera videos without documenting what cases or incidents the videos applied to. Many videos were also submitted well after the recorded incidents occurred, she added.
Because of those "extreme time delays" and omissions, crucial evidence wasn't available to prosecutors or defenders in time to make a difference in court, Young Bolek said.
Young Bolek blamed a lack of proper training and oversight by department leaders for the body-worn camera footage issues.
Internal department evaluations of the body-worn camera program obtained through a public records request also make note of the issues Young Bolek raised.
The police department conducted a performance review, according to a May report, that included an analysis of 300 randomly selected incidents in which Hillsboro officers were dispatched during the first six months of 2020.
In more than 90% of the incidents reviewed, the report indicated Hillsboro police followed the proper procedures. But in a small proportion of the incidents reviewed, officers didn't include body-worn camera videos when they should have. In several others, they didn't categorize them properly.
City officials didn't respond directly to questions about Young Bolek's concerns about the body-worn camera program.
In a statement, Preston said officers receive training on the proper operation and care of the cameras, as well as the department's policies related to the program. He said additional training occurs periodically to ensure effective use and compliance with changes or updates to the program.
Preston also pointed to the OIR report that Young Bolek referenced in her resignation email, which states that the department should clarify its body-worn camera procedures.
"HPD has made some rules but left officers to improvise about others," the report reads.
In one of the report's 47 recommendations, it continues, "The department should revise its BWC policy to require officers to review footage when preparing an incident report in support of an arrest or citation but to refrain from review in cases in which the officers' conduct is at issue."
Asked whether the District Attorney's Office planned to investigate Young Bolek's concerns about the program, Stephen Mayer, spokesperson for the District Attorney's Office, said prosecutors will review Young Bolek's email and Hillsboro's own investigation and decide how to proceed after that.
"Our priority is to ensure that we comply with all legal and ethical requirements on all criminal cases filed in Washington County Circuit Court," Mayer said.
In large part, OIR's assessment of the Hillsboro Police Department is favorable. It notes that the department's "existing mechanisms for internal review showed promise and often delivered meaningful examples of rigor, objectivity, and accountability."
The report also dispels the idea that the flaws it does point out are due to "a dysfunctional or resistant culture."
But the report isn't altogether glowing, citing several areas — and examples — where it says Hillsboro police fell short. It suggests department leaders err on the side of leniency in discipline and don't always take personnel history into account.
Young Bolek told the News-Times that she worked with the consulting group as it conducted its review, and she didn't pull her punches, providing examples of what she saw as the department's failure to adequately discipline officers and staff following internal and external complaints.
One section of the report discusses an officer who repeatedly engaged in what it calls "questionable decisions and actions," including multiple instances in which he struck or shoved suspects in the head. When those incidents were brought to supervisors' attention, the report states, they were "often followed by remedial training or the most lenient of disciplinary actions."
Young Bolek said she provided OIR with information on that case. She isn't named in the group's report, but she told the News-Times that she believes her participation gave department officials further motivation to retaliate against her.
Young Bolek also provided information about complaints related to instances of sexual harassment of community members, as well as internal complaints from women in the department, she said. The report notes two such cases in which it faults Hillsboro for not taking decisive action to address those complaints.
Young Bolek told the News-Times she lost confidence that department leaders would actually follow OIR's recommendations. She alleges that Coleman said at a staff meeting that he didn't plan to meet with the Hillsboro City Council to discuss the OIR report's findings.
"He advised that, essentially, it would take us a great deal of time to 'truly contemplate' each recommendation and so, as time passed, it likely would become a non-issue in the future," Young Bolek said, adding, "If we are truly transparent and we truly believe in being a learning organization and being better, then why would you indicate that there's no reason to go before council, or a desire not to go before council?"
Young Bolek says the City Council should ask for Coleman to present the report and come up with a process for evaluating and implementing its recommendations.
"The Hillsboro City Council needs to ask tougher questions of its police department," she said.
Young Bolek says she knows police departments make mistakes. But she added that she has been continually disappointed with Hillsboro police leadership's reaction to opportunities to improve accountability.
"Don't get me wrong — I am not trying to say the Hillsboro Police Department is bad," Young Bolek said. "What I am trying to say is it's time for change in the culture."
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