Highway Patrol in flux amid low staffing, morale

RENO -- The departure of Nevada's public safety director is being cheered by some state troopers who charge Richard Kirkland's heavy-handed management divided the state law enforcement agency and led to poor morale and crippling turnover.

Supporters say Kirkland rescued a foundering agency by restoring discipline, accountability and refocusing on its primary goal of highway safety. Both sides agree the force isn't the same agency it was before he arrived.

During Kirkland's three-year tenure that officially ends next month with his announced retirement, about one of every four uniformed troopers left the Nevada Highway Patrol and almost every top manager was replaced.

"I have never seen any organization in such disarray from confusion and chaos or so demoralized, intimidated and unproductive than what is now a completely destroyed and dismembered Nevada Highway Patrol," said Matt Paszek, a lieutenant who resigned his post in March after 20 years.

Kirkland shrugged off the criticism and said "it's part of the job."

"If you're going to make changes, you're going to make enemies," he said. "In my 40 years of working in government, what I have seen is very few people who are in a leadership position don't make enemies or have critics."

Said NHP Col. David Hosmer, a Kirkland appointee, "For three years, four years, we were in a steady decline of productivity. It takes a long time to turn that type of culture around."

In a series of interviews conducted over four months, past and present troopers statewide allege Kirkland and his commanders went overboard, increasing tensions and promoting divisiveness on the force. Among trooper complaints: abuse of the peace officers' bill of rights; management by fear and intimidation; and targeted and excessive internal affairs investigations.

Many of the 20 current and former troopers who were interviewed would not allow their names to be published saying they feared retribution, but echoed the comments and criticism of those who spoke freely.

"There's always two sides to a story," said Mike Hood, the former NHP colonel who was forced out after 25 years with the patrol and conceded that problems existed before Kirkland arrived.

"He had ideas of where he wanted the organization to be," Hood said. "His ideas on how to get there differed from my ideas. So I had to leave."

Hood said internal affairs investigations were used "to force people out."

"In any police organization, internal affairs is very stressful," Hood said. "A lot of people, just being under investigation, found it easier to get out. They couldn't take the stress.

"I wasn't about to sell my soul just to keep that job," he said.

Kirkland, Hosmer and Scott Simon, president of the Nevada Highway Patrol Association, said they were unaware of any internal affairs investigations being misused.

Hosmer said the allegations come from a small group of rabble-rousers, and Kirkland said they are without merit.

"If you listen to anecdotal things, you're going to get in trouble," Kirkland said. "Certainly at NHP, when I took over their management was in a shambles, it truly was disastrous."

During an association meeting in Reno after Hood announced his retirement, Kirkland blamed the former chief for departmental failures.

"I did not run the highway patrol," Kirkland said according to a tape of the meeting obtained by The Associated Press. "In fact, my failure was I should have taken the colonel and twisted his head like a chicken and snapped it.

"He failed in a huge number of areas," Kirkland said.


Kirkland, 57, a former Washoe County sheriff and Reno police chief, was appointed by Gov. Kenny Guinn as public safety director in June 2000.

In addition to directing the Nevada Highway Patrol, his duties involve overseeing Nevada's other public safety agencies, including parole and probation, the state fire marshal's office and the Nevada Division of Investigation. He announced his retirement earlier this month effective June 10 and has since spent time out of the office on unused sick time.

During his three-year tenure, Kirkland suspended NHP's training academy and abolished the drug dog program, moves agency officials say were needed because of poor oversight and lack of direction.

A $14 million radio system, in the works since 1997, is in jeopardy of being scrapped because necessary permits were not obtained from the Federal Communications Commission. Hosmer has said the agency could be fined, and an investigation would be conducted.

And more than 100 out of 424 sworn personnel left while Kirkland headed the agency, according to state personnel records.

"Some of that was voluntary and some of that was not," Hosmer said. "A lot of people didn't want to be held accountable. That's what it boils down to."

In testimony before a legislative panel in January, Hosmer said 90 percent of NHP's command staff had been replaced because of their "failure to properly recruit, train, promote and supervise," -- shortcomings he said that resulted in lawsuits, personnel problems, equal rights and citizen complaints that cost taxpayers money.

Kirkland points to a quarterly report as testament to his success.

According to the "Safestat Report," covering Jan. 1 through March 30, troopers reported 56,542 violations and arrests, a nearly 28 percent increase over the same period last year.

Kirkland said the report shows "our program was not only beginning to work but working substantially well."

"That was probably the crowning accomplishment, to get them back to what they were supposed to be doing," he said. "If you look at those statistical issues, and grade how you did, I think that's how you come to a conclusion."

Still, there are others who are happy to see him go, including several who have written letters of complaint to Guinn, state lawmakers and members of Nevada's congressional delegation.

In a letter to the governor, Paszek wrote, "Gov. Guinn, you can no longer ignore the problem. The time has come to hold this man and his current administration accountable."

John Lewis, a former sergeant, said he had hoped to retire next March with 20 years. He left in January.

"I got to a fork in the road where I had to make a decision what I wanted to do," he said. "It was no longer a good place to work anyway.

"It's continuous turmoil," he said. "There's investigations that are done, if they don't like the outcome they reassign it on the pretext it wasn't done properly."

Dan Luke, a 23-year NHP veteran, left under Kirkland's watch.

"In my opinion he devastated a good department," the former sergeant said.

"Ninety-nine percent of the cops have great hearts," Luke said, adding that he's known troopers who have given stranded motorists money out of their own pocket to help them out.

"To take those kinds of people and just ruin them, it's terrible," he said. ---

Some of the criticism stems from Kirkland's battles with former union president Trooper Stewart Handte over department rumors, allegations of internal "hit lists" of so-called problem employees, and the much publicized "pizza caper," in which another trooper, Tony Dosen, was put on extended leave for failing to pay a $3 lunch tab at a pizza parlor in September 2001 and related policy violations.

That internal investigation took about a year. Paszek, who was involved in the probe, said supervisors were required to provide daily progress reports to command.

Dosen said the lunch bill was an honest mistake and he later returned to pay it. The trooper, who received the agency's medal of valor in 1997, was given a 30-day suspension and ultimately resigned his 14-year career.

A state hearing officer, in a 40-page ruling, upheld the punishment, saying Dosen was guilty of "disgraceful personal conduct" that impinged his integrity and caused discredit to the agency.

Handte was relieved of his duties on Christmas Eve 2001. He remained on leave for about a year over various squabbles and resigned in April 2003.


Guinn supported Kirkland throughout, and declared the director's position one in which a "critical shortage" of qualified candidates existed. The classification allowed Kirkland to collect his $103,000 salary along with a $70,000 pension. Though the move sparked debate, a bill in the 2003 Legislature to repeal "double-dipping" by state administrators was killed in the Senate.

In announcing his departure, Guinn said the director "performed admirably to ensure the safety and security of our citizens."

NHP Maj. Robert Wideman defended Kirkland and Hosmer in a May 7 article published in the Reno Gazette-Journal.

"Public accusations that Director Kirkland and Col. Hosmer have somehow diminished a once proud and effective agency only demean the striking improvement in the level of service our dedicated troopers have provided to our state," he wrote.

Simon, the union president, said Kirkland "made some positive changes."

"He's brought us into the 21st century as far as computer technology goes," he said, adding that "ticketless technology" will save time and money.

"He made some tough changes as well," Simon acknowledged.

"I believe he's going to be missed in some aspects and in some aspects he won't," Simon said. "Personally, I will miss him."

Gary Mauger, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 14 in Las Vegas with which the Nevada Highway Patrol Association is affiliated, didn't mince words.

"I'm ecstatic," he said of Kirkland's retirement.


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