Kent Mayor Dana Ralph says her administration badly underestimated the public outrage that would spring from the decision not to fire an assistant police chief who posted Nazi insignia on his office door, embraced the rank of an officer in Adolf Hitler’s murderous Schutzstaffel, or SS, and joked about the Holocaust.
The admission came as Ralph and police Chief Rafael Padilla issued a somber public mea culpa, apology and lengthy video explanation Friday on YouTube as to the reasoning behind the city’s decision to discipline Assistant Chief Derek Kammerzell by giving him two weeks off, which he could take as vacation, and ordering him to undergo cultural sensitivity training.
Ralph and the chief were forced to revisit that decision — made in July — and called last week for Kammerzell’s resignation, in what will likely be a costly violation of the city’s contract with the police union by imposing additional discipline in a case that was resolved last summer. That decision followed an international avalanche of contempt and anger focused on the suburban South King County municipality.
News of the incident, which occurred in September 2020, broke last week after a citizen’s watchdog group, No Secret Police, obtained documents from the investigation through public disclosure.
“I am sorry. I have let you down,” Ralph said in the 30-minute video. “Our community, our region, is hurting and your trust in us has been damaged and our response in handling the situation has fallen short.”
Padilla said he was “tremendously sorry and embarrassed. This should not have happened, ever.”
In an interview Friday afternoon, hours before the video was posted at 9 p.m., Ralph reiterated that the city “took this incident extremely seriously from the start.
“But it’s a fair statement that we really underestimated the reaction, what would happen,” Ralph said.
“I have heard from people who were genuinely hurt by this. We listened to them, and responded appropriately,” she said.
Since the investigation began in September 2020, the city has hired two outside attorneys — one to conduct an investigation and another to advise the mayor and Padilla on matters of discipline within the confines of the Kent Police Officers Association contract and in consideration of the state’s binding arbitration requirements for public employees.
Ralph said in the video that city officials wanted to fire Kammerzell, but that they risked having him reinstated through arbitration. After a 10-month investigation, city officials concluded that Kammerzell would be given two weeks off without pay, but would be allowed to take paid vacation during that time.
“That was what we believed was legally defensible,” Ralph said. Citing the attorney hired to advise the city — Mike Bolasina of the Summit Law Group — the mayor said in the Friday interview that anything more significant would mean the city risked having the decision reversed in arbitration, and that Kammerzell would return to work “and he would be untouchable.”
A telephone call seeking comment from Bolasina was not returned Friday.
Kammerzell, a 27-year Kent police veteran, was targeted for investigation after a detective complained that the assistant chief had posted the rank insignia of a Nazi “obergruppenfuhrer“ over the name plate on his office door and referred to himself by that rank — one of the highest in the Third Reich, held by officials who oversaw the slave-labor and death camps.
The investigation also showed that Kammerzell at one point shaved his facial hair into a Hitler mustache and had been photographed in lederhosen apparently giving a stiff-armed Nazi salute during the city’s 2019 Oktoberfest celebration. In the past he had joked that his grandfather died in the Holocaust — by falling drunk out of a Nazi guard tower.
Kammerzell told investigators he didn’t understand the significance of the rank, which he adopted after watching the television series “Man in the High Castle,” which explores what the U.S. would be like if the Allies had lost World War II. The investigation said Kammerzell’s explanation was not credible.
Some statements in the video seem to conflict with information contained in documents obtained by The Seattle Times through public disclosure.
In the video, Padilla says Kammerzell had been “untruthful about knowing that the rank he posted on his door was attributable to a Nazi SS general’s rank.”
However, Padilla wrote in a formal notice of discipline issued July 14, 2021, that he would not sustain an allegation of “untruthfulness” — which would be justification for termination — stating, “Based on the evidence presented, I do not believe the investigation produced sufficient evidence that you were untruthful in asserting that you were not aware that the insignia you posted on your door was a Nazi insignia.”
Last week’s revelations of Kammerzell’s actions and the city’s decision to allow him to remain on the job fed a groundswell of outrage that reached as far as Israel and Germany, where displaying some Nazi symbols can be a crime.
“It became increasing clear that it wasn’t enough,” the mayor said in the interview.
After consulting with the chief and others, Ralph said she decided last week to ask for Kammerzell’s resignation, which she acknowledged puts the city in a position of attempting to impose new discipline it had already concluded may not be defensible.
The city has reached out to the police union and Kammerzell’s attorneys, but no resolution has been reached. “We have just begun negotiations,” Ralph said.
Ralph announced that decision at a Jan. 4 City Council meeting, where she acknowledged there will be “costs associated with this.” She declined to speculate what those costs would amount to.
The chief said in the video that Kammerzell was placed on administrative leave “when it became apparent … that we were potentially headed toward termination.”
The investigation began in September 2020 and concluded with a report written by outside attorney Krista Slosburg of the Seattle firm Stokes Lawrence on Feb. 3, 2021, in which she concluded the allegations about Kammerzell were likely true.
The city did not place Kammerzell on paid administrative leave until March 8, after the No Secret Police watchdog group alerted members of the City Council and other officials to the findings, according to emails provided to The Seattle Times by the group and documents obtained from the city through a public disclosure request.
Kammerzell remained on paid administrative leave until July 14, when Chief Padilla imposed the two weeks of unpaid leave as discipline, and gave his assistant the option to take paid vacation during that period, according to documents obtained by The Seattle Times through a public disclosure request.
Ralph said Kammerzell remains on leave, but wouldn’t say if he was being paid or provide any other specifics.
“But he will not be coming back to work in the city of Kent,” the mayor said.