KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Vernon Coakley will no longer be the chief of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety after an investigation found allegations that he spoke inappropriately to three women to be credible, the city says.
Coakley will retire effective Sunday. He will remain on unpaid administrative leave until then. He has been with KDPS for more than 24 years.
A Thursday release (PDF) from the city says that under the terms of a separation agreement, Coakley will get a severance package of $155,250, the equivalent of a year’s pay, and the standard KDPS pension package. He will also get the standard payout of any unused sick or vacation time. His separation will be listed as “retirement in good standing” under the Law Enforcement Officer Separation of Service Record Act. Coakley agreed not to sue the city or disparage it.
“I want to start by strongly emphasizing that allegations involving any kind of harassment are taken very seriously, and the City of Kalamazoo will always fully investigate any claims as required by law and the City’s personnel policies,” City Manager Jim Ritsema said in a statement. “These last few months have been difficult, and we now must move forward. However, I believe the negotiated settlement is the right decision for all involved. To those employees who brought forth these allegations, I thank you for bravely coming forward. The process was long, but necessary to gather all the facts and to ensure that those involved were treated with the measure of due process as required by law.”
Coakley was placed on leave Aug. 16 after three women came forward with complaints of sexual harassment and verbal abuse. One of the women was a KDPS employee. The other two worked for the city, but not specifically for KDPS.
A 30-page report by an independent investigator supported the women’s reports and concluded Coakley had violated department policies about code of conduct, standards of conduct and discriminatory harassment.
The KDPS employee was the first to file a complaint on June 30. According to the independent investigator’s report, she said that between 2018 and 2019, when he was assistant chief, Coakley repeatedly pulled her hair. She said she told him to stop but he did it anyway. While Coakley denied ever touching the complainant — calling her report “pure fantasy” — other employees recalled seeing him do it and at least two other women said he had pulled their hair, too. The complainant said she worked hard to avoid Coakley so he wouldn’t touch her and one witness said he would “run interference” to help the complainant keep away from Coakley.
The same employee said that on June 28, Coakley yelled at her in the parking lot in front of two other people because she didn’t verbally respond when he greeted her. Coakley told investigators he did reprimand the woman, but said it was the culmination of his concerns about insubordination from her.
Investigators found both the woman’s claims to be supported. It said Coakley’s touching of the woman affected her ability to do her job and that his shouting at her in the parking lot was unprofessional, “uncivil and fell outside the boundaries of acceptable employee supervision.”
The other two women came forward on Aug. 12 and Aug. 13. Both reported single instances in which Coakley made comments that were sexual in nature to them — one earlier in the summer and the other on Aug. 9. Coakley denied the earlier instance outright and in the Aug. 9 instance disputed the details of the comment, saying it was “not sexual in nature.”
While there were no other witnesses to either of the comments, investigators found the complainants’ reports credible, saying they had no grudges against Coakley, no reason to lie and that, in fact, coming forward was more risky for their careers.
“…There is a clear pattern of unwelcome sexual behavior towards at least three individuals,” the report concluded. “(Coakley’s) position is one of public trust. As he himself said during the investigation, the Office of the Chief of Police deserves respect. Here, however, that Office has resulted in repeated serialized comments that, viewed from the relative positions of power in which they occurred, are incredibly troubling.
“…Taken together,” the report continued, “they demonstrate an inappropriate application of sexualized power in the context of law enforcement interaction with civilians. While this does not rise to the level of a policy violation for purposes of sexual harassment under the circumstances and given the isolated nature of particular comments, it does not appear to be reflective of the professionalism expected of a police officer at KDPS.”
In a joint statement from Coakley and the city, Coakley said he “disagrees” with the investigation’s findings.
“Kalamazoo’s Department of Public Safety (“KDPS”) Chief Vernon Coakley is retiring from KDPS effective January 1, 2023. Chief Coakley’s departure from the City follows the completion of an independent, third-party investigation of misconduct allegations. The Chief disagrees with the findings and the nature of the investigation, but would like to thank the men and women of Kalamazoo Public Safety and the community for 24 and a half years of service.
“The parties have resolved their differences in a separation agreement and full and final release.”Joint statement from the city of Kalamazoo and Coakley
Coakley told investigators he had “on numerous occasions … endured acts of discrimination based on his race” during his time at the department. He also suggested that race may have played a role in the complaints, though investigators found no evidence of that.
He signed the separation agreement on Dec. 21. By law, he had seven days to back out. That period ended Wednesday, at which point the agreement went into effect. His ousting was made public Thursday.
The report includes a statement from one of the women in which she references being white. It does not include information about the races of the other two women.
Wendy Fields, the president of the Kalamazoo chapter of the NAACP, told News 8 she has concerns about the investigation, specifically about the independent consultant group that conducted it.
“I did not see a diverse organization, so that caused me some concern,” Fields said, saying she questioned “whether or not it would be impartial and fair.”
Coakley did not answer the door at his home when News 8 went there Thursday seeking comment. A city official said the city manager and mayor could not speak to the media under the terms of the separation agreement.
“The City of Kalamazoo is strong, and we remain steadfast in our efforts to continue the good work that’s being done to improve the quality of life in our city. This effort includes the work done by the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety to strengthen community relations and enhance overall safety. We maintain full trust in KDPS and all KDPS officers under the leadership of Chief David Boysen, and we know that their good work will continue in the community.”Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson
After joining KDPS in 1998 and rising through the ranks, Coakley was sworn in as the chief on Oct. 1, 2020. He replaced Karianne Thomas, who was fired over criticism about how the department handled racial inequity protests, downtown vandalism and a Proud Boys rally. She also received $150,000 in severance pay.
During Coakley’s tenure as chief, Fields said, race-based complaints made to the NAACP about KDPS went down.
“I would hope that what he started in looking at the department through an equity lens, a lens of anti-discrimination and trying to change what has systemically been embedded there, that work continues because I know that it was making a difference,” she said.
With Coakley gone, David Boysen will take over as chief. He had been serving in the role on an interim basis while Coakley was on leave. Boysen has been with KDPS for 26 years, including having been a deputy chief since March 2021. Before that, he was the assistant chief of investigations and community collaborative programs and captain of the Community Solving and Problem Solving Division.
“Chief Boysen is the right person to lead our KDPS team and I know that he, and the nearly 300 employees of KDPS, will continue to work every day to keep our community safe,” Ritsema stated.
Boysen’s swearing in will happen next week and will be private, the city’s release said.
—News 8’s Ken Kolker contributed to this report.