SANDPOINT — The abrupt resignation of police Chief Mark Lockwood is trailing a wake of tight-lipped city officials, denied public records requests and an undisturbed pachyderm in the room.
Lockwood’s retirement follows weeks of rumblings that he was on thin ice with members of the City Council and against a backdrop of expected litigation over an unconstitutional arrest, high turnover in the department and long-standing perceptions that his department is an oppressive force in the community.
Lockwood insists his retirement is not tied to any of those matters, although he concedes he grew weary of the politics of the post.
“I’m tired of the fight, of the constant back and forth,” he said.
For its part, the City Council is saying nothing. Current and former council members either decline to discuss the matter of Lockwood’s retirement on the record or didn’t respond to requests for comment.
But some cite the exodus of four well-regarded and experienced officers as a factor in the turn of events. At least two of the officers submitted letters of resignation which alleged mismanagement and cronyism, and took steps to make sure the council received the letters.
The city rejected a public records request for the letters of resignation by claiming they were exempt from disclosure because the correspondence involved “personnel” matters. The city said Lockwood didn’t submit a letter of resignation because he retired rather than resigned.
The arrest of a Sandpoint woman last year for invoking her right to remain silent in a stalking investigation is currently creating problems for the city. Rita Hutchens, 56, was forcibly taken to the ground and arrested on her own property for obstruction of justice when she declined to speak with an officer who followed her to her house.
Hutchens’ defense counsel moved for the case to be dismissed, arguing that the invocation of a fundamental civil right does not constitute the crime of resisting or obstructing a law officer. Bonner County Magistrate Court Judge Barbara Buchanan agreed and the case was thrown out of court prior to trial, court records indicate.
Hutchens, city records show, subsequently filed a $250,000 claim for damages from the city over her unlawful arrest. The claim was not honored by the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program, clearing the way for Hutchens to pursue damages in 1st District Court.
The messages posted online and upon brick and mortar are also difficult to ignore. The department is denounced on websites and social networking sites, and unflattering fliers are turning up around town.
A flier posted on a Main Street business declares that Sandpoint is a “Blue Light Community.”
“Sandpoint Vacation Leave on Probation,” reads the copy on the flier, which features a silhouette of a police officer clubbing a person with a truncheon.
But Lockwood shrugs off the various veins of criticism.
“It could be disgruntled employees, angry residents, former council people — just about anyone,” he said. “I’ve never lived anywhere where there was so much grapevine as here.”