Las Vegas Sun

March 19, 2019

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Documents: Firm recommended removing Henderson police chief for policy violations

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.

An independent firm this week recommended officials oust Henderson Police Department Chief LaTesha Watson for violating policies and because of her office’s toxic relationship with police unions, according to documents obtained Saturday.

Watson disobeyed orders from her supervisor — Deputy City Manager Bristol Ellington —  in December by changing promotion guidelines for captain positions, and insinuated she had ears in executive board meetings of the Henderson Police Supervisors Association, the union that represents sergeants and lieutenants within the agency, the documents said.

The three investigations that led to Watson's dismissal were conducted by Littler Mendelson, a law firm which last year was paid more than $50,000 by Henderson to conduct 10 separate investigations into Watson. None of the previous complaints amounted to policy violations.

When Ellington showed up to Watson’s office Thursday morning, she gave Watson two options: resign discreetly or be fired.

Watson, who is black, told the Las Vegas Sun on Thursday that she felt discriminated against. Her 16-month tenure was hindered by a lack of support from her supervisors and colleagues resisting her orders, she said.

For example, when her executive team attempted to discipline officers — including at least eight who were arrested on domestic violence or DUI charges — Watson was told to reconsider the severity, she said Thursday.

Watson said she couldn’t help but think that her race and gender contributed to the tension.

Watson on Saturday night said she couldn’t comment on the findings from Littler Mendelson because she had yet to see the documentation.

Watson was brought to Henderson in late 2017 as an “agent of change,” after the former chief departed in the midst of a sexual harassment investigation. But her tenure began to sour when the city manager who hired her stepped down.

Distrust and tension between several officers in leadership positions and Watson and Deputy Chief Thedrick Andres, Watson's replacement, is apparent in interviews summarized in the documents.

“I believe that Chief Watson has engaged in inappropriate and ineffective leadership of (Henderson Police) that is unlikely to be cured and creates vulnerability to the city,” the author of one of the reports wrote. “It is unlikely that coaching” or changes could prevent “the issues from reoccurring.”

“Therefore,” the author wrote, “I recommend serious consideration be given to termination of employment.”

“Mole” investigation

A Henderson lieutenant and sergeant — only identified as Sgt. Abernathy and Lt. Chadwick — who served on the union’s executive board told investigators that Watson had made comments along the lines of having a “mole” in their team and that “they could not trust anyone,” because everything said in their union meetings “was being leaked to her.”

According to the complaint, Watson recounted a story about a union meeting, where one of the members had yelled and threw a water bottle.

The officers maintained the bottle had accidentally tipped and that the yelling was friendly banter, yet, tensions arose with the board when word spread that Watson had allegedly made the comment, documents show.

In a meeting that aimed try to identify the source of the reported leaks, a member said that “the entire board is tainted and should step down.”

Others interviewed told the investigation that she’d previously made similar comments.

In the bottle incident, Watson maintained she did not solicit the information, according to the documents. She also denied using the word “mole,” and “did not recall bringing (it) up,” but admitted that she may have.

She said she didn’t have a source in the union’s executive board, which was the same conclusion the investigation reached. However, Watson’s comments sowed mistrust and chilled board members from freely and candidly speaking in meetings for a fear of retribution if they criticized Watson.

The documents said that it appeared Watson had “absolutely no awareness” that her comments could create a “toxic” environment.

“This is an exceptionally poor leadership practice especially given the importance of trust and teamwork to ensure the safety of officers,” the documents said.

Captain promotions

A memo on Dec. 31 said that any lieutenant who wanted to be a captain could apply.

Previous policy, according to the report, stated that a candidate must have accrued three years of leadership experience, including one year as a lieutenant.

In Watson’s process, “there was no interview or interview panel utilized for the promotional opportunity,” according to the documents.

The new captains were announced on Jan. 8, but included two candidates who hadn’t met the one-year requirement of being a lieutenant.

To change the policy, the union would have had to be in agreement with a proposal, which was required to be turned in 30 days prior, according to the documents.

Furthermore, Ellington — Watson’s supervisor — had told Watson that the promotional process had to be discussed with the city's human resources and attorney’s offices.

She did not do this, according to the report.

Watson contended that there was a history of officers being promoted out of policy, and that she wanted to open up the process to all the 17 lieutenants in her department, according to the report.

The promotion process had to be redone, according to the documents.

This was a crucial violation, according to the documents, because Watson was hired to address issues of morale and appearance of gerrymandering that had manifested under the previous policy chief's administration.

The investigation could not determine whether Watson purposely disobeyed Ellington’s orders, but it recommended disciplinary action anyway.

Complaints about Watson and Andres retaliating against supervisors for their involvement with the union were mostly unsubstantiated, according to the heavily redacted documents in one of the three investigations.

The investigation took issue with what it said was Watson’s behavior. “It is deeply concerning that Chief Watson appears to intentionally be creating an atmosphere of distrust and division amongst employees.”

The discord between the Watson’s executive team and the union was apparent, according to the documents.

The city didn’t further comment on what is next after Watson said she wouldn’t sign the agreement presented to her on Thursday, which included cooperation, nondisparagement and confidentiality clauses and $24,522 in severance, regular paychecks and health insurance through May.

Watson had said she and her attorney were in conversation about her next move.