Denise Janssen v City of Clear Lake Shores

 

 

 

The Mayor of Clear Lake Shores said repeatedly that Denise Janssen needed to be fired from the city’s police department because she  spoke out about misconduct within the ranks. The police chief said the same thing, again repeatedly. Because Janssen was a fine officer, the City’s trivial and false excuses for firing her did not ring true. Especially when compared to the serious misconduct by male officers that went relatively unpunished.

While Chief Paul Shelley was in charge of Clear Lake Shores’ Police Department he amassed a stunning record of misconduct. He was reprimanded by a state agency for helping officers cheat on a training exam, he failed to maintain an evidence log for over a decade, and he used a City credit card for multiple, substantial personal expenses. After numerous misdeeds came to light in 2011, he resigned as police chief, but kept his job as City Administrator.

Shelley hired Denise Janssen as a patrol officer in 2006. A year later, she was named Officer of the Year. In June 2010, Shelley promoted Janssen to Detective Sergeant. That year, Janssen also received a “Meritorious Service Award.” As Detective Sergeant, Janssen’s job duties included directly supervising two to five officers and reviewing the other officers’ work. She also assigned patrol duties. This was on top of her investigation duties as a Detective. Chief Kenneth Cook, who followed Shelley, testified that Janssen was an “outstanding investigator.”

Each year, the Mayor and City Council members were required to evaluate the City Administrator. Tami Perkins had recently been elected to Council and took the matter seriously. No other council member submitted a written evaluation. As part of that effort, Perkins consulted police officers. She told Janssen she was evaluating Shelley’s performance and asked if she would be willing to talk about the Chief. Janssen had mixed feelings. She got along fine with Chief Shelley, but she knew there were problems that should be addressed. So Janssen accepted Perkins’ invitation to talk, but only while off duty, because Janssen feared retaliation. The two talked several times over the next several weeks by telephone.

The most serious problem Janssen and Perkins discussed was the evidence room. Chief Shelley was solely responsible for maintaining the evidence room. Yet he ignored that responsibility, and evidence, property and weapons went missing. Janssen reported that five guns that had been entered into the evidence room were now missing.

A subsequent review substantiated Janssen’s concerns and uncovered further problems. Chief Shelley had not kept an Evidence Log for a decade. “[N]arcotics, knives, prescription pills. etc., and seven (7) guns,” were unaccounted for. While such evidence is of vital importance in a criminal prosecution, here, it was missing. Shelly suffered no adverse consequences for this dereliction of duty.

Janssen also reported Shelley’s habit of using the City’s credit card for personal purchases. Again, a subsequent audit proved Janssen’s concerns were on the mark. The report confirmed a number of occasions when Shelley used the City’s credit card to purchase “significant” amounts of consumer goods. There was no evidence Shelley ever reimbursed that money. Yet Clear Lake Shores never filed criminal charges against Shelley.

On June 21, 2011, Perkins shared the officers’ concerns with the Council though Mayor Johnson tried unsuccessfully to keep this topic off the agenda.

Chief Shelley was immediately willing to resign his position as chief, but only after getting a new employment contract as City Administrator. Assistant Chief Kenny Cook was named Interim Chief. Mayor Johnson pursued criminal charges against Perkins and the other council members who agreed to place Shelley’s evaluation on the June 21st agenda: Arline Laughter and Jackie Fuller.

On April 9, 2012, the City’s retaliatory intent became clear. Mayor Johnson approached an officer in his patrol car and the following exchange occurred:

I call Kenny every time and say ‘What do you want me to do?’ …  If you’re a cop, what you’ve gotta do is to  stay completely neutral. … about Denise gettin’ on Tami’s side, she’s gonna lose her ass. … [inaudible] that’s fuckin’ with me and you don’t want to fuck with me … They think they run things – they do not run things … Tami, she thought Tami was going to be running everything. Tami ain’t doin’ shit. I’m the Mayor … That’s why you stay neutral.

At Cook’s next appearance before council, Mayor Johnson and Shelley announced that Janssen had to go.

On December 20, 2012, Cook suspended Janssen “pending the outcome of an investigation.” Two days later, Cook gave Janssen a written complaint with several allegations but no supporting evidence or witness statements. Janssen was instructed to respond in writing by December 26, and she did. By that time, Chief Cook admits he had already decided to fire her.

Two days later, after talking with Shelley and Mayor Johnson, Cook handed her a termination letter filled with bogus, petty reasons to fire a talented officer.

After Cook fired Janssen, male officers committed serious misconduct, with little or no consequences. One male officer (1) used inappropriate language towards a female co-worker and received oral counseling; (2) got a three-day suspension without pay after he left the scene of an accident at a bar after having some beers (he peeled out, hit a parked car, then hit that car some more), tried to intimidate the citizen by flashing his badge, and failed to report the accident to HPD; and (3) accidentally discharged his weapon while cleaning it, shooting a bullet into his neighbor’s apartment and received no punishment.

Butler & Harris proudly brought a lawsuit against Clear Lake Shores alleging gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of the First Amendment of the United States’ Constitution.