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June 12, 2021

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Former Henderson Police chief sues city for discrimination

LaTesha Watson, Henderson Police Chief

LaTesha Watson

Updated Friday, Sept. 25, 2020 | 5:42 p.m.

As head of the Henderson Police Department, LaTesha Watson was undermined by city officials, union leaders and the officers below her.

She was the victim of racism, sexism and defamed to the point that nearly 30 potential employers passed on her after she was fired by the city, Watson alleges in a federal lawsuit filed on Tuesday.

The 30-page, 11-count complaint names Henderson and some of its high-ranking officials as defendants. It seeks unspecified monetary damages.

Watson was fired weeks after she was placed on administrative leave in March 2019. At the time, Watson told the Las Vegas Sun that she was given the option to walk out quietly with severance pay and extended health care coverage, but first had to sign non-disparagement and confidentiality clauses.

While Watson, an outsider hired from a Texas police department, was brought in as an “agent of change,” she had gotten pushback from officials when her administrative staff had tried to discipline officers.

The lawsuit aims to sustain those allegations in further detail:

•Unidentified uniformed officers, on several occasions, followed her teenage daughter home from school.

•A veteran union leader sought documentation from a minor parking-lot crash her daughter had been in even though the teenager hadn’t broken the law.

•Union leadership fed information to media outlets to obtain the same documents and images from the teenager’s interactions with officers the day of the crash.

•A union president allegedly said, “I want this Black b---h out of here and we need to find complaints against her.”

•Officers posted “disparaging” comments about Watson on a racist website.

•In a meeting with Watson and her supervisors, union leaders complained that she wore business attire and her hair “down and curled.”

The alleged incidents continued without being investigated by the city.

When she reported the comments on the racist website to Mayor Debra March, who is also named in the lawsuit, Watson alleges, she told her to “stay strong,” and that “everything will be OK.”

In an email statement, a Henderson spokeswoman wrote that Watson brought “unsubstantiated” allegations of racism and discrimination only after she was fired April 2019 “for disciplinary reasons.”

The city, the statement said, has extensive documentation that shows she wasn’t qualified to lead the police department.

“Ms. Watson made poor and ineffective leadership decisions and created distrust and division within the organization,” the statement said. “The City’s expectations for team members in a leadership role are to demonstrate professionalism and to work by the City’s fundamental values of integrity, collaboration and excellence.”

Watson’s lawyers could not immediately be reached for further comment Friday.

An independent law firm the city hired investigated several complaints made against Watson in 2018. The first 10 complaints probed fell short of policy violations. The investigator noted that “it is more probable than not that there is a serious morale issue amongst supervisory personnel at (the department).”

After she was fired, the city released three additional reports of investigations by the same law firm, Littler Mendelson, which recommended firing Watson for allegedly disobeying her supervisor, Deputy City Manager Bristol Ellington.

Watson’s lawsuit said that although it was supposed to be an independent investigation, the law firm has connections to city officials, and noted that a police union representative was present during what were supposed to be private interviews.

“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.”

Watson applied to a couple of dozen police departments after being fired, but couldn't gain employment despite being qualified, the lawsuit alleges. One of the recruiters told her that her stint in Henderson was keeping other agencies from hiring her, according to the lawsuit.

Watson was finally hired in May as the director of the Office of Public Safety and Accountability in Sacramento, Calif.