Thursday, July 26, 2007

The house that Ron Tussing built -- Part IV

It's fascinating what little gems one can pick up from reading the transcripts of depositions -- the raw material that jurors get to digest in making a decision.

This particular exchange (page 62 starting at line 9) between plaintiff's attorney Elizabeth Best and Mayor Ron Tussing couldn't have helped the City of Billings:

Best: "Isn't it true that you prepared a song with lyrics that stated,

Take this job and shove it, you freaking little creep. I think you're totally clueless and your bullshit is too deep.

(flurry of objections)

Best: You created lyrics which said that?

Tussing: Yes

Best: And you were referring to the city administrator?

Tussing: I don't remember what that was about.

Wow. Brilliant, witty, and penetrating lyrics like that, and Tussing doesn't have any idea who he was talking about when he wrote them?

And he wrote them when in the middle of an extremely public, nasty, and escalating cat-fight with the city administrator -- yet doesn't "remember what that was about."

That really had to have helped him and the city with the jury on the credibility front.

Reading the transcript, keeping in mind that Tussing is putting the best face possible on how he and his department handled Feuerstein's complaints (as he should,) one gets a disturbing picture of a police department without an adult at the helm.

Consider this exchange (starting on p. 19): Best is asking Tussing about what kind of records he had kept regarding any investigation into Feuerstein's initial claim that officers had improperly given drugs (used in training dogs in the K-9 unit) to a civilian (for her independent use in training dogs):

Best: Are records important for investigations of allegations that one of the officers you supervise has committed a felony?

Tussing: Well, under most circumstances I would say yes. I mean, we had nuts come in all the time and say -- you know, I can think of two people right off the top of my head that had constant complaints.

Best: Well, and you know we're not talking about nuts in this case, right?

Tussing: Well...

Best: Is Steve Feuerstein --

Best: Is Steve Feuerstein a nut?

Tussing: I think he's got some psychological problems.

Best and Tussing then go on to discuss the changes in Feuerstein's demeanor that Tussing said he observed, before returning to the issue:

Best: And you did nothing to notify other people that he was mentally imbalanced at that point, right? Right?

Tussing: Right

Best: You did nothing to determine whether or not he was a safety hazard to himself or others because of what you described as his mental problems, right?

Tussing: I subsequently spoke to the city administrator (MH: this was not Bauer, but the administrator who preceded him) about the issue later as -- as his behavior became more and more bizarre.

Best: I asked you a direct question, sir. Did you do anything to determine whether or not he was fit for duty as a result of your claim that he had -- his psychology had changed?

Tussing: I -- I tried to.

Best: And what way did you do that?

Tussing: I wanted to have him -- have a psychological evaluation.

Best: And so the way you did that was to go to the city administrator and tell him that you wanted one?

Tussing: Yes.

After an exchange regarding Tussing's qualifications as a mental health expert, or rather lack thereof (Tussing notes that he was working on a PhD in psychology,)and regarding whether Tussing had consulted with any mental health professionals about how to proceed (he hadn't,) Tussing offers this up:

Tussing: I thought it was appropriate that we should evaluate him to see, because other officers had expressed concerns to me that he might go postal, to use a euphemism.

Now all of this was some years ago -- and the deposition subsequently determines that after Tussing was wondering if Feuerstein would "go postal," the latter was out doing PR work for the department regarding K-9 unit work.

We never do learn in the deposition whether that mental evaluation was ever done, or if so, what the results were.

Now, for all we know, Feuerstein could easily have been a mental case and a danger to self and others -- in fact Tussing stated in his deposition, in the present tense, that he thinks Feuerstein has psychological problems.

Yet what is glaringly missing in this deposition is a record of a dispassionate, careful, investigation into the alleged mishandling of drugs and a careful and dispassionate evaluation to determine one way or another whether Feuerstein was stable enough to be a police officer.

And amazingly, Tussing gives us as a reason for not keeping records of all of this was (drum roll, please...) the fact that he thought Feuerstein was mentally imbalanced and that some fellow officers were allegedly worried that Feuerstein would "go postal."

My, my. All of this really had to go over well with the jury: after all, if Feuerstein was a "postal" kind of guy, why wasn't it dealt with quickly and professionally? On the other hand, who isn't familiar with the tactic of threatening, or giving, a psychological evaluation to a "problem employee?" Scary stuff.

The more thought that is given to this, the more MH feels a little guilty about wondering aloud whether Feuerstein was a "worthy plaintiff" or not. This had to have taken a tremendous amount of courage, especially knowing that he had to have been offered a tidy settlement to keep the case out of court.

And you have to think about the jurors and their courage, too. Billings is a small town, and if the jurors believed that there was over $1 million worth of stink in the police department (at least back then,) it had to have at least crossed their minds that there might be some remaining stink there that could lead to retaliation.

And now we have this from Mayor Tussing:

Tussing said he is curious to hear from members of the jury about how they weighed the evidence and came to the verdict.

More than likely, it was Tussing's testimony that hurt the city the most with the jury. How are they going to respond to Tussing's suggestion that they tell him why they decided what they did?

We also learn that "the City Council has an executive session scheduled for Monday night 'to talk about legal issues.'"


The city's insurance rates could be affected as a result of the damages awarded to Feuerstein, Tussing said.

No kidding?

And to think, the class-action lawsuit hasn't even been filed yet. And oh, yes, there will be one, to be sure. The lid is off, and this isn't over by a long shot for our fair city.

But this should be left on a positive note, since what is important for Billings is that we as citizens give the department the chance to demonstrate that things are already different now than they were then, and that even more lessons learned in this trial will be put to good use. It sounds like this will be the case:

Police Chief Rich St. John said he was "very disappointed in the verdict."

"I certainly respect the jury and the deliberation they did, but I'm disappointed. I thought we defended our case," St. John said shortly after leaving the courthouse.

"I feel terrible for the police department and the city."


"The work to repair the damage in the Police Department begins right now and the work to re-establish the public trust.


"I reassure the public that the department is committed to providing the very best law enforcement and public safety service that we can. This department is filled with highly skilled professional people."

The trial was a "look at a snapshot in time several years ago," St. John said.

"That was the past," St. John said. "But it's my shop now, and I feel responsible. We'll right the ship. We'll get moving the right direction."

And to that, one can only say a heart-felt "make it so."

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