Copping an Attitude

Public complaints about racism have created firestorms of recrimination at the Glendale police department. Is psychological counseling a remedy for the conflict -- or retaliation against officers who spoke out?

In a better world, June 6 would have been a fine day for Glendale police officer Janis Whitson. That day, Whitson's immediate supervisor completed his annual review of the 12-year veteran's performance.

"You have been a strong participant in team efforts and have promoted cooperative behavior and team efforts on the squad," Sergeant George Sahadi wrote in his stellar review of Whitson's accomplishments.

Sahadi detailed only one, slightly disconcerting pattern in Whitson's on-the-job habits: "On occasion, I have noticed that working relationships tend to get you down, and you do not hesitate to voice your opinions, which has caused you some difficulties."

This was an understatement.
That afternoon, Glendale assistant chief Paul Felice met with Whitson and Sergeant Frank Balkcom.

Before it was over, Felice had ordered the pair to seek the counsel of a psychologist. The reason? Their key roles in a New Times story ("Bad Blood," May 2) about troubles at the station house.

"Chief Felice told me at our meeting, 'I'm particularly concerned about you, Jan,'" Whitson recalls. "'I've talked to detectives since the article and they don't feel the same way about you . . .' He said the counseling was about healing. But I told him I don't need healing. I've already dealt with some officers who don't see it my way. We've agreed to disagree and carry on with the mission.

"Balkcom asked him pointblank if this was because of our job performances or the story. He said it was the story."

In that story, Balkcom and Whitson took the unusual step of breaking the code of silence that exists at most police agencies. The story described how a Glendale sergeant had wrongly targeted Frank Balkcom's wayward son Eli for several crimes--including attempted murder--that he didn't commit.

In the piece, the pair also alleged that institutional racism was commonplace at the Glendale P.D. They cited examples: the routine, on-duty use of racial epithets by named peers, and the display of drawings with harsh racial connotations, tacked up in the squad room by unknown officers.

The public airing of these serious allegations created an uproar inside the 150-member cop shop of Arizona's fourth-largest city.

Tensions have not abated since the story was published. The department remains in turmoil.

Assistant chief Felice agrees the story was the sole impetus for the meeting and the proposed counseling, which the department now calls "conflict mediation." But he insists his intentions aren't malevolent.

"I feel we need to do something about the hostile working environment that Jan, especially, is going to face when she gets back to detective work," Felice says, referring to Whitson's expected return to investigative work from patrol.

"The article focused in part on some very serious personnel conflicts that we have among experienced officers. Jan and Frank are good officers. But I think they're paranoid about who's out to get them. They want to paint me as the antichrist, which hurts. I've had people tell me, 'They made their bed. Let them lie in it.' I just don't think that's right. We have to do something.

"Our people have to trust each other on the job. If they can't, the work will suffer and so will the citizens."

Randy Henderlite, a Glendale captain who also attended the June 6 meeting, agrees with Felice that Whitson's recollection is skewed.

"Paul [Felice] never said it was going to be a psychological evaluation," Henderlite recalls. "He said right out that the counseling was not punitive, but necessary and good. I thought he was speaking in good faith, but, frankly, I've never been in a worse meeting in my life."

Felice says he also has asked several other Glendale officers to attend the counseling sessions. The list includes detectives Rusty Peterson and Keith Otts, ex-gang-squad members who allegedly have made racially offensive comments; Sergeant Preston Becker, who wove mistaken information into a request for a search warrant for Eli Balkcom's home; and Detective Mike Robbins.

Felice, too, plans to meet with the psychologist.
"I think it's reasonable for me to discuss my frustrations with things with a professional," he says. "I was mentioned negatively in the first article, and a lot of things don't set right with me at the moment."

Police chief David Dobrotka says he wants to turn the fragile, ugly situation around.

"I'm trying to find a way to bury hatchets that have been carried for several years," says Dobrotka, an urbane, direct man who moved to Glendale from Minneapolis in mid-1994. "There are very harsh feelings here, but I'm a cop, not a psychologist. I just don't know how to start pulling down some of the brick walls that have been put up. I've got a legitimate reason as a boss to intervene."

Whitson, who has retained an attorney for a possible lawsuit, doesn't see things that way.

"They've singled me out for speaking my mind," says Whitson. "I won't say that anyone else is a bad officer and I'm perfect. Obviously, I'm not. I've got nothing against talking to a shrink, except I don't want it to be a setup--that I'm diagnosed as being this delusional bitch. All I'm saying is, 'Deal with me equally.'"

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