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Westminster Police Department on July 20, 2021. (Liam Adams, CCM)

The city of Westminster’s suspension of police Chief Tim Carlson and another top official came as the police union backed a push for new bargaining powers to address “troubling” flaws in the department, a union representative said. 

As complaints from the rank and file piled up and went ignored, it “became necessary” for Carlson and Deputy Chief Todd Reeves to temporarily step down, said David Acunto, a local police officer and union official who cheered their removal during a July 26 Westminster City Council meeting. 

“The Westminster Police Department is in a troubling state,” Acunto told council members during a public comment period. In the past two years, the department has grappled with turnover and there is “no clear relief in sight. Officers cope with low morale, poor staffing, improper micromanagement, drastically surging call load and increased population density.”

The remarks by Acunto, who is secretary of the Colorado Fraternal Order of Police and a member of the FOP Lodge 25, offered new insight into a rift that shook up the Westminster Police Department in July. 

Carlson and Reeves were benched as the city contemplates allowing its sworn officers to have collective bargaining power. The discord comes as violent crime is on the rise in Westminster and police say they are struggling to keep up with the pace of emergency calls.

Overall crime increased 2.8% between 2017 and 2020, to 5,815 offenses from 5,654, according to annual crime statistics reported to the FBI. Westminster reported 297 violent crimes in 2017 and 315 in 2020, a 6% increase in major crimes like homicides, sexual assaults and robberies, records show.

According to emails obtained by the Westminster Window through an open records request, tensions were running high before the city suspended Carlson and his deputy.  And Acunto said Carlson and Reeves failed to provide “any real method” for officers to communicate candidly with police brass about the issues. 

Carlson and Reeves remained on paid suspension this week, more than a month after City Manager Donald M. Tripp issued a statement July 12 announcing that Carlson agreed to temporarily step down pending what he called a “workplace environment” review, which is still underway. The statement didn’t mention that Reeves was suspended, though the city later confirmed that after an inquiry by the Westminster Window.

Carlson has been with the department for nearly 35 years and makes a salary of $195,554, a city spokesperson said. Reeves is a 27-year department veteran who makes a salary of $169,219.

Neither man responded to requests for comment. 

No estimate has been given for how long the probe will take. A third-party consultant is working with the city’s human resources department to conduct the review, Tripp’s statement said. 

While the turbulence at the police department may have started under Carlson, it continued even after he was suspended, according to the comments by Acunto and police emails obtained by The Window, one showing a commander privately expressing his opposition to the push for collective bargaining.

Acunto said he decided to address the council because city staff have been meeting with union leaders to discuss the complaints and find a resolution, he said — potentially one that doesn’t include new bargaining powers for the union.

Todd Payne, a fellow officer who also addressed the council, disputed Acunto’s claims and defended Carlson and Reeves. 

“There are ways for us to talk to the command staff,” he said. “The command staff is responsive to our needs.”

The Westminster clock tower
The Westminster clock tower overlooking Westminster City Hall at the corner of 92nd and Yates Drive.

Payne argued that collective bargaining would inject an “adversarial” element in contract negotiations and wouldn’t address attrition, which he said has other causes.  

Payne also seized on Acunto’s claim about high turnover, saying many recent departures are officers retiring. “If you take the time to look at the people that are retiring, the vast majority of them had a long tenure with the Westminster Police Department.”

Acunto said the department has experienced the “highest attrition rate in the history of our great city over the past two years,” but departmental records show departures of sworn officers have remained between 4% and 5% over the past five years. 

That’s well below the turnover rate at the nearby Aurora Police Department, which lost 20% of its force in 2020, blowing out a 6.5% average it recorded between 2015-2019. Aurora is more than three times more populous than Westminster, and its flood of officer departures came after a series of scandals, including international fallout from the 2019 death of Eljah McClain after an encounter with police and paramedics. 

Aurora’s attrition rate includes both sworn and non-sworn personnel, unlike the numbers in Westminster, which only reflects the departures of sworn officers.

Payne said that recent turnover in Westminster is “not an unexpected thing or it’s not because of the environment” in the police department.

Potentially going to the ballot

Securing collective bargaining rights would give Westminster’s police union new leverage when negotiating wages, benefits and working conditions — but voters would first have to approve, because it would require a change to the city charter.

Members of the lodge voted in May to back a push for collective bargaining powers, with 145 members in support and two opposing, Lodge 25 President Kurt Frenzel said. Only officers, detectives and sergeants, who would be covered by the agreement, were allowed to vote. The chief and deputy chiefs are not part of the bargaining unit. 

Only a handful of Colorado’s 35 local FOP lodges across the state have collective bargaining rights, the Colorado FOP website shows. 

Acunto emailed the city council June 25 and said the union wanted to become one of them.

The city charter currently doesn’t allow for collective bargaining in the police department. Westminster voters would need to amend the city’s charter through a ballot measure. 

A similar change occurred in 2016 when voters approved a charter amendment for the fire department, setting the stage for negotiations leading to Westminster’s first municipal labor union contract two years later. 

Acunto formally requested approval of a November ballot measure to allow for the change. 

The council has not reached a formal decision on whether a collective bargaining measure will appear on the city’s November ballot, though Mayor Pro Tem David DeMott signaled that he is receptive to the idea.

In an emailed response to Acunto’s request, DeMott directed city staff to schedule a discussion about police collective bargaining at the council’s upcoming meeting three days later.

Internal police emails 

The city council followed through and discussed the union’s request on June 28, and afterward, its push for collective bargaining became a topic of discussion among police brass at work, emails show. 

Acting police Chief Norm Haubert, who was then a deputy chief, sent an email to other high-ranking officers telling them the chief wanted them to stay neutral on the issue while in the line of duty. 

“Collective bargaining came up with (the) city council last night,” Haubert wrote. “Long story short, the chief is asking that we (the three of us) take a neutral position on this at work. He doesn’t want another hurdle to jump as we continue down this path.”

In response, one of the recipients, Tim Read, commander of technical services, replied, “OK. I’ll go from ‘hell no’ to neutral.”

In another exchange, on July 1, Carlson discussed collective bargaining with Deputy Chief Dean Villano and its potential impact on nonunionized officers. Carlson told Villano in an email that both nonunion and union officers would be subject to collective bargaining.

The chief wrote to Villano: “Ironically, yes, non-members would be subject to collective bargaining just like members if it goes through.” Carlson told Villano that nonmembers don’t have a voice in collective bargaining, and if they want one they need to “join the FOP.”  

Four days later, Carlson emailed all department employees with a series of updates, touching on collective bargaining and complaints that officers have been raising. 

“I will continue to say that I see and understand the issues you are facing including the crazy calls for service and elevated level of violence in our city,” Carlson wrote. “We have significant challenges ahead of us. We continue to focus on maintaining proper staffing while ensuring officers are allowed the time off you have earned and deserve.”

The chief invited sworn personnel to a meeting on July 7 with him, Tripp and Deputy City Manager Barbara Opie, who, Carlson said, pledged to “listen to your ideas, concerns and suggestions for the department.”

Just before that meeting, Carlson sent another email to his deputy chiefs about conversations between the city and the union about collective bargaining. The chief suggested that the council’s support for police would make it difficult to avert the union’s push for collective bargaining. 

Carlson wrote: “(With) an election year and all of them (members of city council) want to be seen as ‘supporting the cops’, I have no doubt that it will go through quickly and get on the ballot.”

After July 7

After the July 7 meeting during which Carlson, police officers and city management discussed workplace complaints and employee benefits, the city began negotiating with an outside consultant for the workplace review. 

Carlson and Reeves were suspended on July 12. 

The city declined to provide the Window any records from the July 7 meeting and refused to provide almost all emails sent and received by city leadership after the meeting, before Carlson and Reeves were suspended.  

The city claimed the records, if disclosed, “would likely stifle honest and frank discussion within the government.”

The city maintains that Carlson and Reeves’ suspensions were unrelated to the July 7 meeting. “The July 7 meeting was centered on collective bargaining, and the workplace review is independent of the collective bargaining process,” city spokesman Andy Le said in an email.

Colorado’s open records laws require the city to describe material it withheld from the public. 

Emails the city declined to release had subject lines including: “PD recruiting 2021,” “WPD witness list,” “Needed items,” “Police information,” “Meetings at the PD/Collective Bargaining,” and “WPD witness list 7 12.”  

The city said it denied the emails because they involved “internal discussions between human resources, city management, legal, and an outside consultant regarding a personnel and workplace culture investigation.”

“Revealing the details of the investigation would put witnesses at risk of retaliation,” the city added.

The city of Westminster said it had no disciplinary records on file for Carlson or Reeves.