A week after Police Chief Mark Elbert returned to work, morale in the Bellevue Police Department is low, said the police union’s attorney, Gary Young.
“They’re in a position where they have to work for somebody that they do not respect and who has a serious integrity problem in their minds,” he said of some rank-and-file officers in an interview Wednesday.
Some in the Police Department have said Elbert instructed a sergeant to deceive other department members and hid information from city administration. They also alleged that Elbert tried to coerce union members to change the results of qualifications testing and evaluations and that he had made derogatory comments toward women and racial minorities.
Elbert said at the time that those allegations were fabricated. But a no-confidence vote in September 2017 led to Elbert’s request to be put on leave. He returned to work last week after the Nebraska Commission on Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice determined that there was no merit to the complaints.
Meanwhile, Elbert continues to defend himself. Earlier this month, he filed two libel and defamation lawsuits — one against Young and his firm — and said the ordeal that had him sidelined for 12 months was “unfair,” particularly because he isn’t permitted to address the specifics of the union’s concerns, which are personnel matters.
“I look forward to the day when this can be discussed freely and openly,” he said Wednesday. “In the meantime, I’ll just keep taking the heat.”
Since Elbert returned to work on Sept. 20, a newly formed citizens group opposing his reinstatement addressed the City Council and a police sergeant filed a lawsuit against the city.
The group, Bellevue Deserves Better, includes family members of Bellevue police officers as well as Bellevue residents. It was formed as a nonprofit organization, according to records filed with the state, by Molly Ducker, the wife of a police officer, on Sept. 17, a few days before Elbert returned to work. It’s unclear how many people are members of the group.
“There’s a real threat that Bellevue could lose some officers to an agency that’s not facing these problems,” said Ducker, whose husband, Sgt. Dontrell Ducker, was fired in 2016 before being reinstated several months later. The union filed a claim on behalf of Ducker, requesting an investigation into the handling of that incident, in March of this year.
Laurie Synowiecki, the former manager of the department’s Office of Professional Standards, who had a part in Ducker’s investigation, ended up leaving the city after the union’s claim. However, she left with a $125,000 settlement, which the city paid her after she alleged that she’d been harassed and subjected to a hostile work environment.
The Bellevue Deserves Better website specifically criticizes City Attorney Pat Sullivan, City Administrator Joe Mangiamelli and Elbert, saying they were all involved in unethical actions surrounding the Elbert controversy.
Sullivan denied the group’s allegations. “They jump on a bandwagon with half-truths and don’t have information,” he said. Mangiamelli’s office said he was out of town for a conference; he didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Separately, on Sept. 21, Sgt. Robert Bailey filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that Elbert failed to accommodate Bailey’s health problems in 2015 and coerced and intimidated Bailey. Bailey filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court after the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission dismissed the complaint he filed with the state agency in September 2017.
Elbert called the whole thing “frustrating” and said the union and those involved have been cherry-picking information to release, “concocting and orchestrating” a narrative. But he isn’t permitted to discuss personnel matters and therefore can’t address the specific qualms of the union, the citizens group or the officers involved.
Elbert filed two lawsuits himself earlier this month, one against Young and his firm, Keating O’Gara Law, and another against Jim Maguire, president of the Nebraska chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. Those lawsuits allege that the parties made statements that are “libelous, slanderous, defamatory and entirely false.” Elbert said he anticipates filing more lawsuits.
“The list is growing,” he said.
Elbert was reinstated earlier this month after being on paid leave for a year as a battle with the police union and internal and external investigations into his performance dragged on. Elbert asked to be put on leave after members of the union gave him a no-confidence vote last September. At the time, the union cited a pattern of “dishonest and deceptive conduct.”
While on leave, Elbert collected $122,409 and received full benefits and health insurance, according to information provided by the city.
The union held a press conference on Sept. 13, demanding that a new police chief be appointed. The city said in a statement that an external investigation into Elbert, conducted by the Sarpy County Sheriff’s Office, was “thorough” and that when it was presented to the city, Bellevue officials found no reason not to reinstate the chief.