City to hire law firm for SB police chief

Union hopes to settle suit
Robert Rogers, Staff Writer
Article Launched: 05/22/2007 12:00:00 AM PDT

SAN BERNARDINO - The city has agreed to hire attorneys on behalf of Police Chief Mike Billdt, but the case might never reach court, the police union's president said Monday.

The City Council on Monday unanimously approved an agreement with a $20,000 ceiling for the law firm of Mundell, Odlum and Haws to defend the city and Billdt in a suit filed by the police union.

But the case's prospects of seeing a courtroom are far from certain.

Rich Lawhead, president of the San Bernardino Police Officers Association, said Monday both sides might be eager to bridge the rift that opened between union leadership and Billdt with a lawsuit filed in federal court April 30.

"If we can find a resolution, such as a policy change or injunctive relief, then we can get back to work and put this behind us," Lawhead said. "I'm optimistic we can find a resolution."

The discussions surround a lawsuit filed by the 300-member police union accusing Billdt of retaliating against two officers for seeking legal advice after an April 15 officer-involved shooting.

In February, the union implemented a policy to ensure a lawyer represents officers involved in shootings.

Instead, tactics including administrative leave have been used to dissuade officers from retaining counsel, according to the suit.

City Attorney James F. Penman, whose office drafted the request for council approval of the contract, said the matter was a routine response to a not-uncommon occurrence - legal action against department heads.

"The chief probably has less lawsuits pending against him than his predecessors have in their second years in the position," Penman said.

Still, a flurry of lawsuits in the past few months have brought a landslide of bad press on the chief.

In December, Sgt. Mike Desrochers and Sgt. Steve Lowes filed federal lawsuits accusing Billdt and his direct subordinates of using retaliatory tactics to dissuade rank-and-file officers from filing grievances.

But the biggest blow came from the most recent lawsuit, after which speculation swirled about officers' confidence in the chief.

Now, Lawhead and the union's stance have softened significantly.

Lawhead said he, union Vice President Sgt. Hank Birkes and union attorney Dieter Dammeier met with Billdt and his attorney, James Odlum, last week to work toward resolution.

"We just want a fair deal," Lawhead said. "Most of our membership wants to get back to work. Not many guys want to be involved in politics. They just want to do their jobs."

Fourth Ward Councilman Neil Derry welcomed the news of possible reconciliation Monday.

"We need to have peace between (police) management and our rank and file," Derry said.

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