The tumultuous four-year tenure of Garrr Nielsen as Eureka's chief of police came to an abrupt end Friday morning when City Manager David Tyson unexpectedly fired him without cause, reportedly giving him just minutes to clear out his desk, change out of his uniform and leave the building. While Nielsen's stint in Eureka seems to be over, his departure clearly won't be the last twist in a storyline fit for the tawdriest of TV melodramas.
A brief recap: Nielsen was hired by Tyson in April 2007 to reform a department mired in controversy after four officer-involved shooting deaths. The new chief soon encountered fierce resistance from within the department. Just a year into his tenure, in a special meeting of the city council that would come to be known as "Black Friday," about a dozen departmental employees railed against Nielsen, characterizing him as a vindictive bully. One worker warned the council that she'd filed a sexual harassment claim against him. The public, however, lauded his efforts, and the council voted unanimously to extend his contract. (Nielsen was later exonerated of the harassment charge.)
From there things got even nastier. An anonymous blog called "Above the Law" alleged that Nielsen and police dispatcher Tawnie Hansen, both of whom were married to other people, were having an affair, a claim both parties vehemently denied ("Broken Blue Line," July 2, 2009). The Grand Jury investigated more anonymous claims against the chief and found them to be without merit. Hansen, in turn, sued a fellow EPD employee for spreading the rumor on the "Above the Law" blog -- and was awarded $10,000 in a settlement.
More salaciously, Hansen filed a suit against the city, accusing Tyson of making unwanted, aggressive sexual overtures toward her, and she claimed that after she rebuffed Tyson's advances he deliberately slow-played the investigation into her harassment complaints, motivated by anger and misguided jealousy of Nielsen over the false rumors of an affair. Last November the city settled her suit for $200,000, splitting the cost with its insurance carrier.
Absent any official explanation for Nielsen's termination (Tyson, citing legal constraints, will say only that there was "a difference in management styles") the public has been left to draw its own conclusions based on this sordid history.
In a phone conversation from Oregon Monday, the former chief spoke judiciously about his abrupt dismissal, downplaying his personal conflicts with Tyson. Instead he attributed the underlying motive for his firing to a small contingent of well-connected officers within the department. This handful of officers, Nielsen said, remains entrenched in the old culture of the EPD, a culture that prided itself on being the most aggressive police department in northern California.
"The attitude was, 'We never back down. We never walk away. We refuse to be seen as anything but the badass cops of Humboldt County,'" Nielsen said.
Among the changes made during his tenure were disbanding the SWAT team, expanding officer training around mental health issues, partnering with the county's domestic violence services department, and establishing a problem-oriented policing (POP) unit to deal with nuisance properties and persistent drug problems. Nielsen said his proudest achievement was changing the relationship between the department and the public.
"I think the community had much more confidence and faith in the police department during the course of my tenure than they did prior to my arrival."
But the small core of resistance within the department persisted, and Nielsen said their political connections -- especially after the shift in power on the city council last election -- made his dismissal possible.
"The fact is the new council has two members who are former EPD from the olden days [Fifth Ward representative Lance Madsen and Mayor Frank Jager], and they have very strong connections to some of that old guard," Nielsen said. "Not to say that those new members of the council either condone or bought into that old culture, but I think they have loyalties to people who did."
While Nielsen was reluctant to blame sexual politics for his abrupt termination, former city councilmember Larry Glass willingly obliged. "Nothing was going on between the chief and Tawnie [Hansen], but the rumors about it were just driving Tyson nuts -- because nothing was going on between him and Tawnie," Glass said. "That created this strange animosity that I was a witness to many times." Glass claimed the city manager had been trying to undermine Nielsen for years, secretly organizing Black Friday and manufacturing the complaints that led to the Grand Jury investigation.
The decision to fire Nielsen, whose contract was scheduled to run through December 2013, appears to have been given tacit -- if not explicit -- approval by the city council in a closed session meeting last Tuesday, after Councilmember Linda Atkins placed a contract extension for Nielsen on the agenda. Reached by phone earlier this week, councilmembers Marian Brady and Lance Madsen said unequivocally that they support Tyson's decision. Councilmember Mike Newman hedged a bit, saying, "I'm not against it." In an email, councilmember Melinda Ciarabellini declined to comment.
Asked if the decision was personal, Madsen said absolutely not. "I had my own reasoning behind it. Every council member spoke to the issue." He added that he couldn't disclose what "the vote" was.
Monday night in the basement of the Eureka Veterans' Hall, a group of around 80 citizens gathered to address Nielsen's termination. With overwhelming outrage over the move, the meeting quickly turned into a brainstorming session on how best to get rid of Tyson. Several attendees said the city manager has simply amassed too much power in his 11-year tenure. Councilmember Linda Atkins stood up and said she's ashamed to be part of the City of Eureka right now. Specifically she objected to the manner in which Nielsen was fired, and she said that money from Measure O, the voter-approved sales tax initiative aimed at improving public safety, would be used to pay for Nielsen's contract buy-out -- estimated by Nielsen to cost roughly $185,000, plus accrued vacation and sick leave pay.
Atkins agreed to meet a group of citizens at the corner of 15th and California streets this Saturday at noon to help them go door-to-door with petitions for firing Tyson.
"There was no consideration for how our community felt about our police chief," Atkins told the Journal prior to the meeting. "I don't like a lot about it. I don't like the chief being fired. I don't like how it was done." She said the expense was impossible to justify given the city's current $1.7 million structural budget deficit.
But other councilmembers -- Madsen, Newman and Brady -- dismissed Monday's outcry as a loud noise from a vocal minority, and they said public safety will remain the city's top priority. The vast majority of Eurekans, Newman said, support the decision to terminate Nielsen: "They trust the decision and trust the people behind it as well as the council."