Kent has been in international news lately, but not for ways cities usually seek the limelight.
Media outlets ranging from The New York Times, Washington Post, the television network Telemundo and South New England Jewish Ledger covered the $1.5 million settlement paid to a former assistant Kent Police chief disciplined for displaying a Nazi insignia and joking about the Holocaust.
The episode reflects the high price municipalities sometimes pay to rid themselves of police officers who lose the public trust. It should spark renewed efforts to find a more appropriate balance between labor rights and accountability.
Assistant Chief Derek Kammerzell, a 27-year department veteran, first was disciplined in July 2021 after a detective complained that an insignia used by high-ranking generals in Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich appeared on Kammerzell’s office door.
An internal investigation concluded that Kammerzell knew the meaning of the insignia, which belonged to an “Obergruppenfuhrer” — a high official in Hitler’s Schutzstaffel or SS, which was responsible for the murders of millions of Jews and others in Europe during World War II.
Kammerzell also had been overheard joking about the Holocaust, according to the internal investigation, saying that his grandfather had died in the Holocaust — when he got drunk and fell out of a Nazi guard tower.
In a news release announcing the $1.5 million settlement, Kent stated that it followed all federal and state labor laws and union discipline processes. The release noted Kammerzell’s “resignation would come at a high cost to the city.”
High cost indeed. Beside the monetary sting of $1.5 million, it’s difficult for Kent to push back against the narrative that a cop possibly harboring pro-Nazi sympathies just hit the lottery.
Detangling police discipline from labor rules protecting union employees has proved difficult. Shifty political undercurrents bedevil progress.
In recent years, Democrats have pushed police accountability measures. Democrats are also generally pro-union. However, police unions generate mixed feeling in the labor movement. In 2020, the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Council, the central body of labor organizations in King County, expelled the Seattle Police Guild, affirming its commitment to be an “anti-racist union movement.”
Republicans typically side with business interests over labor. But the GOP likes to cozy up to law enforcement.
In the last legislative session in Olympia, Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, introduced a bill that sought to enhance public trust and confidence in law enforcement by changing complaint and disciplinary practices. It failed to get out of committee.
The Kammerzell episode shows the continued urgency to make the system work better. “It’s not going away,” said Salomon. “This one (issue) is hanging out and screaming for attention and it’s a hard one to tackle. Now is the time to do it.”
Implementing common sense reform around police discipline should be among the top tasks for legislators. No one wants to see another Washington city follow Kent’s path to world renown.