Staff Columnist

West Union K9 belongs with handler

Sierra Fox, posing with West Union K9 officer Xena, says she was forced to resign as the city's only female police officer two months after she filed a civil rights complaint alleging sexual harassment and gender discrimination by West Union Police Chief Paul Berthold. (Photo from the West Union Facebook page)
Sierra Fox, posing with West Union K9 officer Xena, says she was forced to resign as the city's only female police officer two months after she filed a civil rights complaint alleging sexual harassment and gender discrimination by West Union Police Chief Paul Berthold. (Photo from the West Union Facebook page)

This is a story about two police officers who should be allowed to stay together.

West Union, a small Iowa town in Fayette County, has a conflict to resolve. As The Gazette reported last Friday, the town’s only female police officer, Sierra Fox, says she was forced out in retaliation for complaints about sexual harassment and gender discrimination. These are allegations two of Fox’s former male co-workers corroborate, saying Police Chief Paul Bechtold made sexual comments about Fox and told them to ignore her calls for emergency backup because she was probably being “dramatic.”

The treatment, Fox says, began about two years after she joined the department, in September 2017, when Bechtold was named chief. But the situation came to a head this year, days after she submitted a formal complaint to City Administrator Nick McIntyre and Mayor Adam Keller, and subsequently filed with the Iowa Civil Rights Commission and retained legal counsel.

Fox says she was given six write-ups for performance issues — all occurring after her discrimination complaint had been filed — was placed on administrative leave and told to resign or she would be fired. Fox made an audio recording of that the meeting.

If this were any other case — such as those faced by other Iowa small towns — public debate probably would end here as allegations move into the legal system. But this case is different because Fox is a K-9 handler, and the city is demanding she give up her partner, Xena.

The two were paired in February 2016 and, according to documents, the only bond Xena has established is with Fox.

“I am crushed to submit this resignation,” Fox wrote.

“But, in retaliation for my complaints, I am being given no choice. The decision has been made to take my job from me. Please do not also take Xena away from me. Given the conditions Xena lived in before she came to live with me, there is no guarantee that she will be loved, upkept, trained and safe if she is taken from me.”

Although McIntyre told The Gazette a determination about Xena would be made by council members Monday, the group didn’t acknowledged a petition for Fox to keep Xena, which had garnered 3,200 signatures at press time and continues to grow. Despite Fox’s corroborated complaints against the chief, city officials said Monday that Bechtold remains on active duty. Xena is to be relinquished Friday; McIntyre said Tuesday morning that, once in city custody, the K-9 will undergo evaluation.

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Former West Union officer Bryson Hennigar didn’t speak about the allegations, but made a public post on Facebook saying Fox and Xena “were two of the best partners I’ve ever worked with. ... This separation is truly detrimental to Xena’s overall health and well-being.”

There is no debate about the bond between K-9s and their handlers. And it is difficult not to view the forced resignation of Fox, and the subsequent call to relinquish her partner as one more retaliatory move by the city — with potentially devastating consequences for the service animal.

While this case continues to thread its way through the legal framework, council members must do what is best for the K-9 by allowing her to remain with her handler.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 368-8513, lynda.waddington@thegazette.com

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