During the second half of August, two major events occurred regarding the Jackson Police Department (JPD).
The first was a false rumor that the Town Council was going to discuss defunding the department at our August 17 meeting. The second was the absolutely tone deaf JPD Facebook posting regarding a call for service about an underage woman having sex with an adult man. One of its consequences was the August 21 resignation of the officer who wrote the post.
In addition, in its August 26, 2020 edition, the Jackson Hole News&Guide reported on a female police officer who had left the JPD in 2018 because of what she alleged was a hostile work environment.
Although these events were separate, the fact that all three involved the JPD and occurred in quick succession has conflated them in many folks’ minds. To help untangle the conflated skein that led to the current conflagration, here is my understanding of the critical occurrences.
- The genesis of the recent conflation dates back to an action the Town Council took near the end of our 9.5 hours’ worth of meetings on Monday, August 3. Because of the confusion it engendered, I’ll quote from the approved minutes of that meeting.
At around 10:15 pm, under the agenda item “Matters from Mayor and Council,” the following occurred:
(Mayor) Pete Muldoon made comment on funding for the police department budget, wanting to do a review of the range of services with the town manager, with the leadership change in the police department it could be a good time to implement any changes that might benefit the community with the least possible disturbance to the public servants in that department, and having the town manager determine a process for review.
(The Council discussion that followed) included staff impact, continually reviewing expenditures, reviewing the (issue at the) same time as next year’s budget or in the winter, working on council priorities first, understanding the services (provided by the police), public safety issues across the nation, improve access to services, being proud of our local officers, and not limiting review to one department so shifting budgets could be considered.
A motion was made by Hailey Morton Levinson and seconded by Jonathan Schechter to direct the Town Manager to work with Town Council to determine whether a Council review of the current police department budget and structure should be placed on a future workshop agenda and in context with our set priorities. Mayor Muldoon called for the vote. The vote showed all in favor and the motion carried.
Comment: In short, in response to the Mayor’s suggestion that we review the JPD’s budget and range of services, the council unanimously voted to consider, at some unspecified future date, the JPD’s budget and range of services in the context of the entire town budget and all the services the town provides. The motion we approved was specifically worded to look at every department and every service, not the police in any stand-alone fashion.
I voted for the measure because I believe it’s vital for the town to constantly ask itself what services the community needs, what services the town provides, what services the town should provide, and the most cost-effective way to provide them.
- On Wednesday, August 5, Teton County Sheriff Matt Carr and (now-retired) Jackson Police Chief Todd Smith spoke about local law enforcement at the weekly “Wednesday Lunch Group” gathering at Teton Pines.
Comment: Although everyone I’ve spoken to about the event agrees that both Matt and Todd spoke and responded to questions as professionals and did not politicize their remarks, it appears some luncheon attendees came away with the impression that the town council was actively considering defunding the JPD.
- On Sunday and Monday, August 16 and 17, a series of e-mails, robo-calls, and robo-texts went out across Jackson Hole. All falsely stated that, at our August 17 meeting, the town council was going to discuss defunding the JPD. All also urged recipients who supported local law enforcement to attend the August 17 town council meeting and express their views. As a result, several dozen people attended our afternoon meeting, expecting the council to discuss something not on our agenda.
Comment 1: The town council held two meetings on August 17: a workshop and a regular meeting. At workshops, ideas are discussed at a very general level. No public comment is heard, and the only action that can be taken is to direct staff to do additional research.
One topic on the August 17 workshop agenda was “Town Council Mid-Year Check-In”, which those behind the e-mails and robo-calls apparently felt was a euphemism for a discussion to defund the police. That wasn’t the case. Instead, in light of how thoroughly COVID-19 sucked up the town’s bandwidth since early March, the purpose of the “Town Council Mid-Year Check-In” was to discuss all our priorities, with an emphasis on what we could get done in the five months remaining in this council’s term.
Comment 2: As noted above, on August 3 the mayor indicated an interest in examining the JPD’s funding and the services it delivers, and this interest seems likely to have driven at least part of the “defund” concern. This was apparently amplified by the discussion at the Wednesday Lunch Group two days later.
At the end of our August 17 “Mid-Year Check-In” discussion, I made the following motion, and the council unanimously approved it:
I move to direct staff to come back to us as soon as practicable with recommendations on how we can begin a systematic examination of how we identify, prioritize, and monitor all the issues we address and activities we take on.
This was essentially a way to begin the “21st century community with a 20th century operating system” discussion I mention HERE.
- On Tuesday, August 18, a reporter from the Jackson Hole News&Guide used her Twitter account to circulate a screenshot of a Facebook post from the JPD’s page. It read:On August 13, 2020, at 12:26 p.m., we responded to a report of an underage female having sex with an adult. We will be investigating the case to determine if a crime has been committed and if we can prove the crime. You would think having sex with an underage juvenile would always be a crime. Not necessarily. There are a number of factors involved in deciding whether to file charges to (sic) include the age of those involved. Fortunately, determining the age difference of those involved doesn’t involve complex math, so we should be able to figure it out without too much trouble. Just as long as we have coffee and donuts (the ones with the little sprinkles on top) to get us through.
Comment: I did not know of this post until August 18th. To the best of my knowledge, the same was true for my fellow councilmembers and the town’s senior staff. The last two sentences of the post were so profoundly tone deaf, that, coming on top of the “defund” tumult of the previous day and previous weeks, they proved to be a spark igniting a much larger conflagration.
- On Thursday, August 20, Larry Pardee, Jackson’s Town Manager released a letter to the public, in which he apologized for the post’s insensitivity.
- On Friday, August 21, Lieutenant Roger Schultz, the officer who wrote the post, resigned from the JPD. Coincidentally, August 21 was also the last day on the job for long-time JPD Chief Todd Smith, who had announced his retirement in July.
Comment: Chief Smith and Lt. Schultz were the two longest-tenured officers on the JPD, accounting between them for an estimated 25 percent of the department’s collective experience. Both officers served the town well.
- On Monday, August 24, new Acting Police Chief Michelle Weber assumed her position. Upon assuming her job, she released a letter to the community that began: “Thank you for the honor and privilege of serving as the Town of Jackson’s Acting Police Chief. As my first action in this job, I would like to offer my heartfelt apology to the public for the recent (Facebook) comments.”
That same day, Lt. Schultz sent a letter to the town, copied to the press, in which he alleged he had been forced to resign.
Comment: Because it is a personnel matter, the town cannot comment on Lt. Schultz’s allegations. Further, because it was an administrative matter, it would have been inappropriate for the town council to become involved – our job is to make policy, and leave administrative matters to the Town Manager. I did not know about Lt. Schultz’s resignation until the Town Manager called me after it occurred.
- On Wednesday, August 26, the Jackson Hole News&Guide published an article headlined: “Records allege misogynistic culture at JPD. Female officer fights town’s suit over her departure before her contract was out.”
Comment: Here again, because it is a personnel matter, the town cannot comment on the lawsuit’s allegations.
- Finally, since the emails and robo-communications went out, the town council and senior staff have been besieged with e-mails, calls, and social media posts on all sides of the many issues involved.