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Originally published February 26, 2012 at 8:01 PM | Page modified February 26, 2012 at 11:13 PM

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Police force's turmoil unnerves Bainbridge Island residents

A series of controversies, among them the enlistment of a reserve officer with a criminal history, has some Bainbridge Island residents wondering if they can trust their Police Department.

Seattle Times staff reporters

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On Jan. 5, 2008, the Bainbridge Island ferry dock was thick with Seahawks fans reveling in a blowout win over the Redskins when a burly man in a Lofa Tatupu jersey bulled his way through the crowd.

The man, Charles Arntz, 36, had been drinking before, during and after the game.

He bumped Bruce Zwicker, a passenger in his 50s. "Move it, old man," Zwicker heard him say.

Moments later, Zwicker was on the ground. Arntz told police he shoved Zwicker and he fell. Zwicker said Arntz picked him up — "three feet in the air" — and slammed him down, so hard he lost a filling.

Zwicker felt like he'd been "run over by a truck," according to police reports. Blood showed up in his urine. He aggravated a back injury and wound up having surgery.

One witness later told Bainbridge police that, as a stunned Zwicker got to his feet, Arntz grabbed his collar and said, "You want me to do it again?"

Three years later, the same Bainbridge police enlisted Arntz as one of their own — granting him a badge and authority to carry a gun as a volunteer reserve officer — despite a criminal history that included a misdemeanor assault charge for what happened on the ferry dock and an earlier weapons charge.

Arntz's hiring last summer is one in a string of controversies that have undermined the island community's trust in its small Police Department, with some residents questioning its personnel practices and the behavior of officers.

The state Supreme Court last year rejected an attempt by the Bainbridge police guild to keep the public from seeing records related to an officer's alleged misconduct. Before that, the guild's president was accused of harassing a City Council member.

Arntz's law-enforcement career lasted just two months. He quit after his background was leaked to city officials.

Among the revelations: When Arntz was hired, his wife was Police Chief Jon Fehlman's secretary.

"We rained terror"

Bainbridge holds a reputation, as islanders joke, as "Mayberry with Audis."

The idyllic landscape and short ferry commute to downtown Seattle make the island a magnet for the affluent and educated. Novelist David Guterson, author of "Snow Falling on Cedars," and Russell Johnson, the actor who played The Professor on "Gilligan's Island," live there. So does Jay Inslee, the congressman now running for governor.

"It used to be all lawyers and carpenters," says Bainbridge resident Tom Hillier, the chief federal public defender for Western Washington. "Now it's all lawyers and writers."

Bainbridge is as white as Spokane, nearly as liberal as Seattle and more moneyed than Bellevue.

The Bainbridge Island Police Department has 21 full-time officers, with a budget of $4 million. Fehlman, the chief since 2009, came from the Santa Rosa and Laguna Beach police departments in California. In Laguna Beach he was a decorated officer who got hurt so often — hit head-on by a truck, leg broken by a flying bumper, grazed by a ricocheting bullet — that the Los Angeles Times called him "calamity cop."

The Bainbridge department's second-in-charge, Cmdr. Sue Shultz, was hired in April 2007 from the Bremerton Police Department. Five months earlier, Bremerton paid $12,000 to settle a lawsuit that accused Shultz of making a false report and using law-enforcement resources to check up on her then-husband's girlfriend.

An internal police investigation found insufficient evidence to sustain the allegations, but two Bremerton officers questioned Shultz's conduct, including one who said her actions didn't pass "the smell test."

Some residents say there's a divide between the department and community that didn't exist before.

Last spring, on her Facebook page, Officer Michelle Vollmer referred to an emphasis patrol for traffic offenses and wrote: "We rained terror on the island and no one was taken alive." City Council members were so taken aback that, according to City Manager Brenda Bauer, they dropped their pursuit of federal funding for a school-resource officer.

"They were not happy," Bauer says.

"It was a joke," Vollmer says. The city "made a mountain out of a molehill."

Vollmer was reprimanded for the message and later resigned over an incident in which she surreptitiously tape-recorded a meeting between Bauer and the police guild.

To improve relations, the City Council has formed a committee to gather residents' views. The council also hired a police-accountability expert to evaluate the department's procedures for handling citizen complaints. The expert found them wanting — noting, for example, that one complaint form threatened to prosecute for false reports, which could discourage people from coming forward.

For his part, Fehlman invites residents to meet with him personally and attend a Citizens' Academy that covers the intricacies of police work. He's upbeat — "I think we have an excellent relationship with the community ... I think I have great cops here" — but says he's always looking for ways to improve.

A mystery commenter

After a budget meeting in October 2010, City Council member Kim Brackett drove to council colleague Bill Knobloch's home for tea with him and his wife.

The next afternoon, someone using the online name "Hunter" posted a comment on the Kitsap Sun's website, saying: "I am told that Kim Brackett went straight to Bill Knobloch's house after the council meeting. No doubt to commiserate and plan the attack to try & sway or undo the council decisions."

"Hunter" posted the same information on the Bainbridge Island Review's site.

Brackett suspected "Hunter" was Officer Scott Weiss, president of the Bainbridge police guild. When word of her suspicions reached Bauer and Fehlman, they asked the Washington State Patrol to investigate.

"Hunter," it turned out, was indeed Weiss. He told troopers he had seen Brackett's car in front of Knobloch's house while on routine patrol.

Over two months, troopers interviewed council members, city employees and police officials. Brackett told investigators: "It makes me feel like I have to look over my shoulder. ... I think he's harassing me. ... And he was on duty that night. That creeps me out."

As an anonymous commenter, Weiss was prolific. Some comments were silly. (On a story about two people being mooned: "Did this happen at the crack of dawn?") Some insulted city officials. (Of an interim city manager: "I don't think he changes underwear unless the council ... gives him the thumbs up.") Many criticized the Police Department for being top heavy. (The number of lieutenants? "Ridiculous.")

Authorities decided Weiss' actions didn't constitute stalking or harassment. But Fehlman suspended him for a month, saying he'd damaged the department's reputation and the trust of elected officials.

Fehlman was already upset about a rumor he blamed Weiss for spreading, city records show. That rumor — the county might be taking over policing on the island — was "complete garbage," Fehlman said.

The chief also lit into his lieutenants for buying into the rumor. "This message went to the troops and sent their spirits spiraling downward," Fehlman wrote to them. "Why did you not find out the truth? If morale is in the toilet, look in the mirror and see where the problem starts."

Last year four officers were the subject of internal investigations — and three were disciplined, Fehlman says.

"When issues are brought up, we act," he says. "That may be hard, but it's different than it's been done in the past."

Bauer, the city manager since 2010, adds: "In the brief time the two of us have been here, we have responded appropriately to everything that's come to our attention, taking it seriously and moving immediately toward best practices."

The Police Department now faces another issue. In October 2010, a Bainbridge officer, Jeff Benkert, shot and killed Doug Ostling during a welfare check at his home. Ostling, who was mentally ill, was holding an ax when Benkert fired.

In a pending lawsuit against the city, lawyers for Ostling's family learned that Benkert's former employer, the Los Angeles Police Department, planned to fire him based upon a finding of dishonesty.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled decades ago that prosecutors must disclose information that could be used to impeach the credibility of their witnesses, including police officers. But Bainbridge had not alerted prosecutors to Benkert's background, so prosecutors had not alerted defense attorneys in cases where Benkert might be called to testify.

This month the state Court of Appeals, in a case out of Grant County, confronted a similar set of facts and wrote that findings of dishonesty by police must be disclosed. After learning of that decision, Fehlman brought up Benkert's background with Kitsap County Prosecutor Russ Hauge.

Hauge said he plans to review Benkert's LAPD records this week. It's possible, he said, that prosecutors will avoid having him testify in future cases. Based upon what the LAPD records show, Hauge might also notify defense attorneys in some past cases where Benkert testified, to see if they want to challenge any convictions.

"People make mistakes"

After Bruce Zwicker was hurt on the ferry dock, Charles Arntz was charged with misdemeanor assault.

Arntz signed a two-year diversion agreement. He stayed out of trouble for two years, and in May 2010, a Bainbridge judge dismissed the charge.

This was not Arntz's first run-in with the law. In August 2000, Arntz, then 29, was accused of tracking down a car after someone in it flipped him off, according to Kitsap County sheriff's reports. Witnesses said Arntz pulled a .45-caliber handgun and held it to the throat of an 18-year-old, demanding to know who had given him the finger.

Arntz told police he pulled the gun after being confronted by young men carrying pipes.

He was charged with felony assault; in a plea deal, he was convicted of a misdemeanor weapons charge. He was sentenced to 240 hours of community service in a Bainbridge park, according to Department of Corrections records.

In May 2010, days after his assault case was dismissed, Arntz successfully petitioned Kitsap County Superior Court to vacate his weapons conviction and to seal that court file.

Arntz, an employee in Bainbridge's Public Works Department, applied to be a reserve officer in early 2011. He passed a background check and graduated from an academy for reserve officers, winning the "Patrol Partner" Award from his classmates. In July he was sworn in as an officer.

Arntz's background surfaced in September, when an anonymous source began circulating a dossier of his criminal history.

"As you can imagine, Council is very, very concerned about this," then-Mayor Kirsten Hytopoulos emailed the city manager after receiving a copy.

" 'Alarming' is an understatement," wrote council member Brackett.

Arntz quit the force that same month, "because I was asked to," he wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.

He disclosed his full criminal history during the application process and passed a polygraph test that took almost four hours, Arntz wrote. The Police Department saw "that people make mistakes and that things aren't always as they appear," he wrote, adding: "I wouldn't have resigned if I knew it was going to be spun like that and made it look like I withheld information."

In response to the episode, the city retained a contractor to review the Police Department's hiring practices. Bauer, the city manager, also emailed the Kitsap County Sheriff's Office and asked it to investigate Arntz's hiring to "determine where it broke down." The report is expected soon, she said last week.

Bauer told the Sheriff's Office that Arntz's background check did not include the police reports detailing the weapons charge.

Arntz's wife is no longer Fehlman's secretary. She took a job with a police department in Eastern Washington, Fehlman said.

"Charlie was hired based on the information we got on the background check, not based on any relationships," Bauer said.

Staff reporter Justin Mayo contributed to this report. Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or jmartin@seattletimes.com; Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com

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