Las Vegas Sun

April 20, 2019

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Henderson police chief Watson on dismissal: ‘You don’t treat people this way’

2018 Henderson State of the City Address

Yasmina Chavez

Henderson Police Chief LaTesha Watson, shown at the Henderson State of the City address on Jan. 10, 2018, has been placed on administrative leave.

Agree to step down amicably, forfeiting claims against the city of Henderson while not disparaging its reputation, or be terminated with cause.

Those were the options Henderson Police Chief LaTesha Watson said she faced Thursday when her supervisor showed up at her office to tell her it no longer belonged to her.

Deputy City Manager Bristol Ellington then took her access card and escorted her out, essentially ending her 16-month stint with the Henderson Police Department, Watson told the Las Vegas Sun later Thursday.

Henderson officials announced that Watson, who had been chief since late 2017, was placed on paid administrative leave. Officials did not provide their cause, only saying her status would be in place until “further notice.”

Watson, who is black, said she couldn’t help theorizing that her race and gender may have played a role in the exit. She feels her tenure was marked by pushback from the supervisors union, department colleagues who resisted her orders, and lack of support from city officials, who she said initially brought her in to be an “agent of change.”

By not signing the agreement Watson was presented Thursday — which included cooperation, non-disparagement and confidentiality clauses — Watson will forfeit $24,522 in severance, regular paychecks until May and health insurance, according to the document.

Watson and her attorney plan to fight the dismissal. She also wants an apology.

The city last year probed at least 10 complaints that named Watson as a subject, spending more than $50,000 for a third-party firm — Littler Mendelson — to investigate. The complaints, which ranged from accepting tickets from an ambulance company to the Stanley Cup Finals to assigning lieutenants readings that were religious in nature, didn’t amount to policy violations by Watson.

However, the firm, in one of the documents, said that “it is more probable than not that there is a serious morale issue amongst supervisory personnel at (the department). Chief Watson seems to believe that individuals bringing forward complaints are a small number of disgruntled employees. At this point, that does not appear to be the case.”

It wasn’t clear if this led to Watson’s ouster. Mayor Debra March, City Manager Richard Derrick and Ellington, the deputy city manager, could not be reached for comment after-hours Thursday.

In a statement earlier in the day, Derrick said he “has the utmost confidence in the department’s leadership and Henderson will continue to be one of America’s safest cities thanks to the many fine officers and civilians that work at the Henderson Police Department.”

Deputy Police Chief Thedrick Andres, who came to Henderson with Watson from Arlington, Texas, has stepped into her role, officials said.

Watson said she received warnings about the resistance she would face in Henderson for trying to implement change even before she made the move from Texas, where she was deputy chief with the Arlington Police Department.

She knew there would be backlash but didn’t imagine it would lead to this level of “discrimination,” Watson said. “You don’t treat people this way.”

Watson said she only tried to implement reforms that officials had sought continuously.

Watson said at least eight Henderson officers have been arrested on suspicion of DUI or domestic violence since she arrived. Yet, when her executive team went to discipline officers, she said the punishments were appealed and her office faced pressure from city officials and union representatives to reconsider their severity.

Condoning such behaviors not only sends the wrong message to other officers but chips away at the public trust, Watson said.

“Every single time I have an officer that needs to be disciplined, we have to go back and forth,” she said.

Watson said issues began when former Henderson city manager Robert Murnane, who hired her, stepped down in July during a bout with illness, and new city manager Derrick designated his authority over Watson to Ellington, who is black. She took over after Patrick Moers, the former Henderson chief, departed after being embroiled in a sexual harassment investigation.

Watson's detractors have lied to city officials so much that Watson had taken to transcriptions of meetings in order to catch deceit. “Why is it that anything anybody says, (Ellington) goes with, and there’s nothing we can say that he believes?,” she said.

Watson said she hadn’t received a formal complaint in her career but came to Henderson and garnered at least a dozen in 16 months. This despite many improvements, such as more presence of patrol officers on the streets, lowered response times, and community relationships and programs, as well as a drop in crime in the last six months, she said.

Watson in her visit to the Sun brought along three letters sent to officials in her defense, including one from unnamed employees with Henderson Police.

“The chief and her command team have met with officers at patrol briefings, provided updates and shared her goals for the department,” the letter said, something previous management “never” did, it continued. “We believe in Chief Watson and we want her here.”

She also had a letter dated March 5, in which a firm said it had been requested by Henderson to investigate a complaint on her behalf.

“This is utterly ridiculous,” she told Ellington when being placed on leave. “I was asked to come here and to do a job and you have always talked to me as if this organization was well put together and nothing was wrong … this organization was already toxic before I got here.”