An unfair labor practice charge filed with the state of Florida this week accuses Bradenton Police Chief Melanie Bevan and other police department officials of illegal and unprofessional conduct on the job.
The charge was filed by the Florida Benevolent Police Association, a statewide police union, on behalf of former officer Hannah Kalchbrenner.
In a letter to Bradenton Mayor Gene Brown on Wednesday, union president Mick McHale called on Bradenton city officials to open an independent investigation into the chief's alleged wrongdoings.
In a responding statement on Thursday, Chief Bevan disputed the claims, labeling them "unfounded and completely unsubstantiated."
The police union has clashed repeatedly with the Bradenton Police Department in recent months as contract negotiations between the union and the city have come to a stalemate.
In an anonymous survey conducted earlier this year, more than half of Bradenton's police force expressed dissatisfaction with department leadership, citing issues of favoritism, corruption, low salary and fear of retaliation for filing grievances. Bradenton leaders also received an anonymous letter detailing some of the complaints against the agency.
Brown said he forwarded the anonymous letter, but not the survey results, to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in June with a request for an independent review. But FDLE declined to investigate. In its response, the state agency said it does not investigate "alleged internal administrative violations," "alleged violations of agency policy" or anonymous complaints.
Union charge accuses chief, internal affairs
The unfair labor practice charge filed with Florida's Public Employees Relations Commission on Wednesday is based on the account of Hannah Kalchbrenner, a a six-year veteran of the Bradenton police force. Kalchbrenner said she and her husband, who also worked for the department, recently resigned because of her treatment at the hands of Chief Bevan and the Internal Affairs division.
The charge details the events of a service call on July 14, when Kalchbrenner allegedly witnessed Chief Bevan perform warrantless searches of a home and an individual.
Kalchbrenner and other Bradenton officers were assisting the Florida Department of Corrections with an arrest warrant at a residence when Bevan arrived at the home with an officer in training, a letter outlining the labor charge says.
"While on scene, Chief Bevan reached her hand inside the pocket of a bystander on scene without a warrant or a warning," the letter says. "... She felt something and then instructed one of her officers to find out what was in the pocket. It was not a weapon or anything resembling a weapon."
"After conducting a warrantless search of the bystander, Chief Bevan proceeded to enter the home and began searching the home," the letter continues. "Other Bradenton Police officers on the scene were in shock and left speechless as they watched Chief Bevan perform an unlawful search of the home."
The letter also alleges that Bevan ignored a demand from the homeowner to leave the residence if she did not have a warrant.
Several days later, Kalchbrenner filed a complaint about the chief's warrantless searches with internal affairs, the letter says.
Kalchbrenner says she then was "ambushed" by Internal Affairs staff upon her return to work.
Kalchbrenner claims she was escorted into an office and illegally detained by two Internal Affairs employees, Lieutenant Christopher Deshaies and Detective James Curulla. The charge alleges they denied Kalchbrenner's requests to contact her lawyer or a union representative and subjected her to a hostile interrogation. Kalchbrenner said she was also denied requests to use the restroom and forced to present her personal cellphone.
"In addition to fear for my personal safety stemming from the hostile and intimidating manner in which I was being treated, I was reasonably outraged due to the fact that these officers, who were entrusted to investigate my allegation that Chief Bevan intentionally violated a private citizen's Fourth Amendment rights, were nonchalantly violating my Fourth Amendment right to be free from an unlawful arrest," an affidavit signed by Kalchbrenner says.
The U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment protects people from "unreasonable searches and seizures," which courts have interpreted to mean that law enforcement must have a warrant to conduct a search in most cases.
In her affidavit, Kalchbrenner also questioned why Internal Affairs subjected her to interrogation when they could have instead checked body camera footage from the day of the alleged incident.
"It is important to note that Chief Bevan's unlawful search of the residence and her refusal to leave the home as demanded by the resident was captured on agency-issued body-worn cameras," Kalchbrenner said in her affadavit. "As such, there is no evidence that IA could have hoped to obtain from my interrogation that would not be readily available for their review as preserved in the digital video recordings."
But in a public response issued Thursday, Chief Bevan said she is confident that her body camera footage will disprove the allegations.
In a public statement released Thursday, Bevan vigorously denied the claims put forth by Kalchbrenner and the police union.
"As a 36-year veteran law enforcement officer with long-standing ties to my respective communities and agencies, I am utterly dismayed and disappointed by the actions of Mr. McHale and the Southwest Florida PBA in their continued attacks against my character, my ethics, and the integrity of the Bradenton Police Department," the statement said.
"The PBA has obviously failed in its responsibility to successfully negotiate the contracts of its members, and is therefore shifting blame and accountability elsewhere. It is no coincidence these attacks began at the same time the Southwest Florida PBA declared impasse in the contract negotiations.
"To attack the Chief of Police and their own members on numerous unfounded and completely unsubstantiated accusations is a disgrace not only to the agency, but also the citizens we protect and serve every day."
Bevan also criticized Bradenton Councilman Bill Sanders, who has put his support behind the union's efforts to have the department independently investigated.
"I will not stand for false and slanderous allegations by both the PBA and City Councilman Bill Sanders that serve to tarnish and malign my reputation as well as that of the Bradenton Police Department. That Councilman Sanders, who has a reported history of abusive behavior toward many of us who work for the City has participated in this attack, is even more disturbing," the statement says.
What happens next?
At a Bradenton City Council meeting Wednesday, Councilman Sanders asked the mayor for a response to the union's letter. Brown confirmed administrative investigations were underway but would not discuss the status of the investigations or who was leading them.
"I'm in receipt of the letter dated Aug. 8 and the complaint made against Chief Bevan as well as our internal affairs division," Brown said.
"Both are currently active administrative investigations. Investigations are confidential while they're active. We are addressing it. There will be no more discussion until the investigation is complete," Brown said in what appeared to be a prepared statement.
When pressed by Councilman Sanders, Brown declined to answer whether Bevan was on administrative leave.
Bevan also referred to an active investigation in her public statement on Thursday.
"It is unfortunate I am prohibited from responding to the current false allegations against me as it would be a violation of state law to discuss an investigation while active, something Mr. McHale is very aware of and undoubtedly capitalizing on," Bevan's statement said.
The unfair labor practice charge was filed with Florida's Public Employees Relations Commission, which hears labor and employment disputes throughout the state and issues final decisions.
Disputes can take up to 180 days to be ruled on, and often longer if extensions are filed, according to Gregg Morton, PERC's general counsel. The commission typically handles over 100 such cases a year.
"With any unfair labor practice, it comes to me a general counsel," Morton said. "I review it for what's called sufficiency. If an unfair labor practice is found not sufficient, the filing party has one chance to amend the petition. If it's sufficient, I get it assigned to a hearing officer who conducts an evidentiary hearing on it and make a determination on whether an unfair labor practice has occurred.
"Whoever who is on the losing side of that has the ability to appeal that to the commission. And then the commission will issue a final order on whether a unfair labor practice occurred."