Huntington Beach police struggle with ‘deep divisions’ in department, report says

HUNTINGTON BEACH — A report commissioned by the city of Huntington Beach in 2017 to examine the police department found divergent observations inside and outside the department. The report followed a vote of no confidence for Chief Rob Handy by the rank-and-file officers

On one hand, the report by Management Partners said the department and chief enjoy support from residents and city leadership for community policing measures, advances in technology and moderately low crime. On the other hand, the report saw a force riven by “deep divisions” with a chief who fails to communicate or be actively engaged with his department.

The $52,900 65-page report, released late Friday, Feb. 9, consisted of data analysis and department interviews and contained 16 recommendations for change and improvement. Most of those suggestions centered on team-building and strategies to repair the rifts, while also reviewing technology and staffing needs.

“Unless a team can be formed with a common purpose and a basis for trust, the divisions within the department will continue,” the report said.

And “No one type of change will cure the problems we have identified through employee feedback.”

The report did not suggest a need for new leadership.

Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy will have a fight on his hands in 2018 as his police officers and managers unions have both asked for his ouster. (Photo by Sam Gangwer, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Huntington Beach Police Chief Robert Handy will have a fight on his hands in 2018 as his police officers and managers unions have both asked for his ouster. (Photo by Sam Gangwer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

Handy said he took the report seriously and would do all he could to mend fences and listen.

“Everything that is critical of me I’m going to take to heart,” he said.

From the view of the Huntington Beach Police Officers Association, which conducted a 92 percent no-confidence vote in August, the report did nothing to move the needle in its concerns and the association continued to claim only a removal of the chief would cure the department.

Both the Police Officers Association and the Police Management Association, which in December joined the officers in a call for a change in leadership, said the survey failed to ask key questions, including any that singled out the chief.

“To not ask any specific question about the chief is shameful,” said Yasha Nitikin, a sergeant and vice president of the Police Officers Association. As a result, he said, the report was a waste of taxpayer money.

Lt. John Domingo of the Police Management Association said the survey lumped command staff and the chief together which led to confusion.

“We felt this would further inflame the POA,” he said.

Still, the report’s findings did bear out the levels of discontent and distrust.

Among sworn personnel, 77 percent disagreed with the statement that it trusted command staff and 93 percent disagreed that morale was good.

Among non-sworn staff — about one-third of employees — only 41 percent disagreed that it trusted command staff, but 77 percent did not feel morale was good.

According to Nitikin, the recommendations in the report merely rehash failed efforts at reconciliation, such as face-to-face meetings. Nitikin also faulted the report for not interviewing recently retired personnel who could speak freely without fear of possible retribution.

Handy said he is fully onboard with repairing relationships.

“I am 100 percent committed to improving my working relationships with HBPOA leadership and the management team. I also want to ensure that every employee understands and embraces our vision for the future and has a voice in our plan to get there,” Handy said in a statement.

Handy added that the report is a start.

“It gives us a road map going forward,” he said.

“I believe I listen, but I don’t always agree,” he said, adding that some of his most vocal critics are those facing police accountability issues.

Domingo said he believed in the chief’s sincerity in working with labor but added, “It takes two to dance and I don’t see cooperation in the Police Officers Association.”

The report finds blame on both sides.

“There does not appear to be any sense of team and the responsibility for this is shared, in Management Partners’ view, by the chief, the management team and the POA,” the report reads.

About the chief, the report said although there was some appreciation for changes and improvements in conditions and staffing, “many employees voice concerns that the chief does not communicate well with employees, doesn’t listen well to their concerns, is viewed as insufficiently engaged within the department, does not advocate strongly enough for the department, and does not clearly state his vision for the department.”

Rank and file also had mixed view of management, seeing some as constructive and others as opposing change.

“Some employees believe the POA is impeding change from occurring,” the report states, citing resistance to moving to community service officers to relieve sworn officers of duties not requiring sworn status; body-worn cameras; and the removal of suppressors from patrol rifles. Some also felt negative mailers and robo-calls hurt the department.

Staffing also remains a consistent plight, the report said. According to the report, since 2012-13, 15 police officer positions have been restored, but the department still lags more than 16 positions behind its pre-recession peak of 381 employees and 236 sworn personnel.

Council support for the Chief, however, remains strong.

In a statement, Mayor Mike Posey said, “Most residents tell me that they are happy with the direction of the police department.”

But Domingo reasserted his belief that the rift is beyond repair.

“I have been in law enforcement almost 30 years and I have never seen or experienced what I’m seeing now,” he said of the levels of frustration and discontent. “It’s sad.”

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