Discipline creates rift in Sylvania Township police force

Robert Metzger
Robert Metzger

Sylvania Township police Chief Robert Metzger is either a tyrannical union basher or a no-nonsense leader who is reforming the department.

It depends on who you ask.

Many police department employees - particularly two union officials who have been the subject of disciplinary charges - say Chief Metzger unfairly persecutes good officers who challenge him.

"Every time someone's around one of the union reps, it seems like that's who he goes after," said former police officer Jamey Harmon. "He doesn't care what the union says, it's his department."

Mr. Harmon recently left the police department after nine and a half years because of the tension, he said. He now works for Ground Penetrating Radar Systems Inc. in Virginia.

"I thought I'd be a police officer in the township for the rest of my career," he said. "It just wasn't worth the risk of someone picking you out."

Township trustees say Chief Metzger - the township's seventh police chief in 10 years - is reclaiming leadership of the 41-officer department from "a few bad apples."

"You've got a very strong police chief, and you've got a couple of very strong officers who've done what they wanted to do for a long time," Trustee Carol Contrada said. "They're locking horns."

Ms. Contrada said the department is struggling with the transition from a rural department to a modern, urban police force. The police chief, she said, is trying to enforce a new set of policies to update operations. But the new policies aren't always popular, she said.

"Yeah, I think that the police chief has ticked off a lot of people," she said.

"Were they people that any chief would have ticked off? I don't know. Maybe."

Whichever opinion you subscribe to, there's a great deal of animosity right now within the ranks of the Sylvania Township Police Department.

Two officers - who are also union presidents - have been disciplined in the last four weeks on charges brought by the police chief.

Oct. 22, Officer Ron Dicus, the president of the department's patrolmen's union, was suspended for three days without pay for insubordination for the length of his mustache.

Less than three weeks later, Sgt. Robert Cowell, president of the department's command officers' union, was suspended for 15 days for violating departmental policy with respect to weapons, evidence and criminal charges.

Both officers said they were singled out on petty charges because they are active in the union. The police department recently completed a contentious round of negotiations.

"This is classic union bashing," Sergeant Cowell said in an interview Oct. 31. "Everything that they have come up with is completely ridiculous."

Chief Metzger said he is not anti-union or pro-union. He said that it's a coincidence that the two disciplined officers are union leaders.

"They've had so many chiefs here that there seem to be some people who want to run the department themselves," he said. "Once you tell certain people, 'You can do something or can't do something,' you start getting resistance."

Despite the controversy, Mr. Metzger said the department is functioning normally. Crime rates and response times are low when compared to similar cities, he said.

It's been about two and a half years since Chief Metzger joined the Sylvania Township Police Department from Huron Township, Michigan.

He was to chosen to fill a "leadership void" said to have existed in the department for "a significant period of time," according to a study the township commissioned. The 2006 report noted that the department had "quality" employees but that morale was low.

Following a search by the PAR Group of Chicago, the trustees chose Chief Metzger to steer the department back on course.

But the chief came with an employment background that was riddled with controversy, at least according to media reports.

According to Chief Metzger, he served in Huron Township for six years before retiring. A 2006 report from the Detroit Free Press said he had been forced to resign. He later sued the township for $25,000 in damages, the paper reported.

Huron Township would not confirm nor deny the report.

Before that, Chief Metzger had led the Adrian Police Department for three and a half years. He resigned in March, 2000, after six months of paid administrative leave.

Dane Nelson, Adrian's current administrator, said "he resigned with an agreement that the city would not disclose the reason he left his employment."

Newspaper reports from the time cited "philosophical differences" between Chief Metzger and the former administrator.

While he was there, Chief Metzger was investigated for his job performance, style, and communication skills as well as the way he administered policies and procedures, the report said.

Despite having knowledge that there was a problem in Adrian, township trustees said Chief Metzger seemed experienced.

"He was described by a number of people as a 'cop's cop," Ms. Contrada said. "He seemed like he was willing to tackle the problems in the township, which were extensive."

Despite the recent controversy, trustees say they are happy with his performance.

Trustee Pam Hanley said she and the other trustees think it's in the best interests of the township not to undermine the chief's authority by overturning his orders.

"The trustees are saying that's enough," she said. "We're going to stand by the chief, and we're going to do our job."

Many police department employees claim the trustees themselves are anti-union. More than 20 police officers came to Officer Dicus' hearing as a show of support.

"Everybody's scared to do their job," Mr. Harmon said. "It seems like you gotta watch your back more when they're in the building than when they're out in the streets.

"They're tired of fighting the battles."

Contact Angie Schmitt at: aschmitt@theblade.com or 419-724-6104.