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Becker, Burbank share blame for city's handling of sexual harassment claims, critics say

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Salt Lake Police Chief Chris Burbank says Mayor Ralph Becker demanded that he decide “on the spot” whether he would read a public apology, resign or be terminated over his handling of sexual harassment in his department.

“The written apology, crafted by the mayor’s office, did not represent what I believed to be true or ethical, so I chose to retire,” Burbank said in a statement issued late Friday.

The day after Burbank’s resignation was emotionally charged, with some criticizing Becker's election politics and others taking issue with Burbank's handling of sexual harassment claims by three female officers.

Becker, in an interview on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show" on Friday morning, stood by his actions.

“I honor and admire Chief Burbank as an incredible police chief, but sexual harassment is unacceptable in the police department or anywhere else in city government, and I’m not going to apologize for taking firm action when I see sexual harassment in city government," he said.

Becker accused Burbank of inaction when he didn't demote Deputy Chief Rick Findlay in 2014 and failed to implement training and protective procedures for officers after the female officers reported sexual harassment by Findlay the previous year.

Findlay was placed on administrative leave and retired when he reached his 20-year anniversary with the department, more than a year after the allegations surfaced.

Demoting Findlay would have exposed the city to “prolonged appeals," Burbank said. "It lacked integrity because it was simply vindictive and not in the bounds outlined by prior precedent, policy and practice.

“I instead chose to keep him on administrative leave and out of the workplace, which I felt was the least disruptive to my organization and most respectful to the women involved,” he said.

Art Raymond, spokesman for Mayor Becker, said a demotion would not have impacted Findlay’s retirement benefits, which are calculated based on an employee’s top three years of earnings, but it would have reduced his annual earnings by $42,000.

Findlay made about $106,000 per year, not including benefits, Raymond said. Since Findlay reached 20 years of service, his annual retirement will be about $53,000 a year, or half of his highest three-year average salary.

Mike Millard, president of Salt Lake City Police Association, said there was shared blame.

"It was unacceptable for the chief to allow a deputy chief to remain on paid leave for six months after the completion of the investigation. It was also unacceptable for the mayor to take a year longer to also take action," he said.

Millard said the city failed to protect its employees and deemed the forced resignation “too little, too late.” By permitting Findlay to remain on paid leave, Burbank allowed the former deputy chief to “save face” by not demoting him, he said.

“(That) tells the three women that his pride is more important than what (they) had to endure,” Millard said. “That’s a huge problem, especially in such a hugely male-dominated career.”

Moving forward, the Salt Lake City Council noted that Thursday’s events do not change its expectations of the police department.

“We expect whoever is chosen for the permanent post to quickly renew an affirming relationship with city employees, visitors and all the people we serve,” the council said in a statement.

Millard said he also hopes for better communication from the mayor’s office between departments.

“I really want the mayor to work with employee groups because he just seems to be so disconnected and he’s always traveling,” he said. “I am still not convinced that the mayor is really as concerned as he says he is, and the only way he’s going to be able to turn that around is if he starts communicating with us more honestly and willingly.”

On Friday, city officials would not release any biographical information about Interim Chief Mike Brown. Brown was a deputy chief under Burbank, responsible for special operations. That includes the department's SWAT team, narcotics, organized crime, bomb squad, and accident investigations, among other duties, according to the police department's website.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Brown is well-regarded in his office and other law enforcement agencies.

"I've known him over the years as a prosecutor for the city and the (district attorney's) office. He's always been an absolute professional. He's a career person in law enforcement. Everybody that I know who's dealt with him thinks very highly of him," Gill said.

What transpired between Becker and Burbank was between them, Gill said, but he said he will miss Burbank's professionalism, leadership and talents.

"He was a great partner for the respective responsibilities of our offices," he said.

Abe Bakhsheshy, professor of ethics in the University of Utah's David Eccles School of Business, described Thursday's events as "astonishing."

Burbank had, by most accounts, a sterling career as police chief of Utah's capital city, he said.

"He has left a very positive legacy, I believe, in terms of his strong interpersonal skills. It is sad this issue all of a sudden comes to the surface during an election year," Bakhsheshy said.

There should be serious consequences for sexual harassment in the workplace, which Bakhsheshy says occurs with great frequency despite mandatory employee training and policies.

However, media reports suggest the chief had discretion how to deal with the complaints, he said. A year after the fact, Becker deemed Burbank's actions problematic.

"The real victim here is the chief of police," Bakhsheshy said.

Burbank also appeared on "The Doug Wright Show" on Friday morning, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts — an uncharacteristic look for a police chief who always wore the department's uniform.

"Ralph needs to be held accountable for how he treated me. And if this is not politically motivated, then what is Ralph Becker afraid of?" Burbank said.

The decision to ask Burbank to issue a public apology to the officers who were sexually harassed by a deputy chief, resign or face termination was "as difficult decision I've had to make as mayor," Becker said.

In a statement released Thursday, the mayor said he wants women in Salt Lake City government to know their service is valued and that sexual harassment will not be tolerated.

"My administration has demonstrated over and over again a commitment to gender equality in the workplace. That said, I know that Salt Lake City government still has much to do to address improving equality and justice for women and minorities in our ranks. I am committed to continue taking actions to accomplish our goals of justice and equality."

Email: marjorie@deseretnews.com, kmckellar@deseretnews.com