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Santa Rosa Police Chief Ed Flint admits that severe strife has made his department dysfunctional, but insists it has not influenced the quality of law enforcement.

The deep divides and mistrust that mark the department hierarchy were thrust into public view last week when city officials fired Capt. James Mitchel, the patrol commander viewed as the chief's second in command.

The firing came in the wake of a series of formal employee complaints directed at Flint and Mitchel alleging gender bias, sexual discrimination and management retaliation.

City Manager Jeff Kolin, who hired Flint in 2003, said the chief has not faced disciplinary action stemming from the turmoil in his department. He also said the city will hire a consulting firm to work with Flint and his commanders to improve personnel and management skills.

The complaints and termination publicly exposed a rift in the department that Flint said has been deepening over the past year.

"The issues of dysfunction surround how we process information, how we make decisions and resolve problems. How we go about that is one of the elements we are looking at closely," Flint said. "But operationally, the department is doing very well."

Flint said this week his concern for the future of the department and community perception of the department has "reached a pinnacle."

"At this point we have a high level of concern as we deal with rumors and complaints," Flint said.

Employee dissatisfaction

He wouldn't characterize the divisions within his command staff, but sources inside the department said some high-ranking employees are dissatisfied with management styles and that many had separated into factions that tended to support either Mitchel or the other captain on the force, Tom Schwedhelm.

Despite the firing, Mitchel and Flint remain close, according to sources close to them. Mitchel was fired following a hearing that included the city attorney's staff and other city officials.

The intensity of the department's conflicts increased when Flint and Mitchel, 53, were notified in February that an investigation was being conducted into at least four complaints alleging unequal treatment of women and discriminatory conduct based on sexual orientation.

All of the four suits named Flint and at least two named Mitchel. They were filed between January 2007 and February of this year.

Turned in his badge

Mitchel was placed on administrative leave with pay in March. On May 22, he filed a lawsuit against Kolin and incoming city attorney Caroline Fowler. The suit alleges that his constitutional rights were violated when the city turned over the results of the investigation to those who filed the complaints.

Eight days later, on May 30, Fran Elm, the city's director of human resources, told Mitchel he was being terminated. He later received a certified letter from the city, and on Tuesday he turned in his badge.

Mitchel can appeal his termination to an arbitrator, whose decision is binding. A hearing could be held late this summer, according to a source close to Mitchel.

Meanwhile, the city has moved Mitchel's lawsuit to federal court. Santa Rosa has hired a San Francisco law firm, which City Attorney Brien Farrell said will seek to have the suit dismissed within a month.

A case management conference is set for Sept. 3 in San Francisco.

Flint would not comment on Mitchel's termination, including reasons for his departure.

Despite what Flint called a "whirlwind" of problems in his organization, he said he intended to stay with the department. His contract with the city is open-ended.

"I haven't done anything illegal or immoral," he said. "I very much enjoy living and working in Santa Rosa. There is a high level of community support, and I need to resolve these issues to the best of my ability."

Union leaders back Mitchel

Leaders of local police officers unions had opposed Mitchel's termination.

"We do not believe that the removal of Capt. Mitchel is the solution to any dysfunctional issues within our command staff," Ken Johnson of the Santa Rosa Police Officers Association and Steve Fraga of the Santa Rosa Police Management Association wrote in a letter to the city. "We believe the problems will continue if the entire command staff is not held accountable."

Mitchel is not a member of either organization.

Flint referred questions on the employee complaints to the city attorney, but said the issues listed in the complaints -- which he characterized as a perception of unequal treatment of people and poor communication -- were problems plaguing the department.

He also said he agreed with Johnson's and Fraga's assessment that the command staff was dysfunctional.

"We have problems dealing with rumors, working together as a team, around communication and trust issues and conflict resolution," he said. "We're not perfect, and we have a lot to work on."

But Flint said day-to-day policing remained strong and pointed to the department's current caseload of four murder investigations in the past month.

He said the department's performance, particularly in those cases, shows it to be a cohesive operational team.

Lt. Jon Fehlman and Sgt. Eric Litchfield also said the department was operationally strong, but hierarchically weak.

The department at the moment is uncomfortable, Litchfield said, but "operationally, the place is as solid as it's ever been."

Advisory board

Litchfield said plans to move forward with a Chief's Advisory Board were a potential salve for the department.

"I think we're going to get on the right path," he said. "Anything that we do to start communicating and addressing issues is getting us on the right path."

A Police Department memo released Thursday disclosed that Flint has created a steering committee that will set the structure for the Chief's Advisory Board. Flint initially suggested the board's creation in January after releasing the results of an employee survey.

Flint appointed Schwedhelm to lead the steering committee, which will also include six volunteers from the department.

Flint said he hoped the eventual advisory board would brainstorm solutions to complaints and problems in addition to documenting them.

The board also will have the authority to address past complaints that some employees believe were not completely resolved, Flint said.

Flint said he is not concerned that he could become a target of complaints heard by the board or that some of its recommendations could alter his job or performance.

"I have never been bashful of criticism," he said. "When it comes to complaints, the chief is at the top of the organization. If there are things that I did, the responsibility rests with me."

Staff Writer L.A. Carter contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer

Laura Norton at 521-5220 or laura.norton@

pressdemocrat.com.