Long Beach City Manager James Hankla tried unsuccessfully to force Police Chief Lawrence L. Binkley to take early retirement before temporarily removing him as head of the department last month, the chief's attorney said Thursday.
Hankla, who initiated an investigation of Binkley's strict management style after complaints from police commanders, quietly attempted to persuade the 51-year-old chief to leave the post he has held for nearly five years, according to attorney Jim Murphy.
A few days later, on Dec. 23, Binkley informed Hankla at an early breakfast meeting that he would not leave, Murphy said. That morning Hankla, who has long defended the controversial chief, stunned Long Beach officials when he relegated Binkley to "special assignments" and named another administrator as acting chief.
"Binkley told him he wasn't going to quit or retire and that's why he was suspended," Murphy said. "There's no reason to push him out. He's done nothing wrong."
Hankla did not return phone calls asking for his comment Thursday. The city manager has called the investigation "a review" and said it was necessary to temporarily remove Binkley from his post "to ensure an open environment" during the probe. Hankla emphasized that Binkley has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing, however.
Calling the reassignment a "punitive suspension," Murphy said the city violated the California Officers' Bill of Rights by removing Binkley as chief of police in the state's fifth-largest city without detailing the nature of the allegations against him. City officials are further violating the chief's rights by refusing to hear an appeal, Murphy said, adding that Binkley will consider a lawsuit if a hearing is not held soon.
"We can't just sit back and let them stonewall," Murphy said. "It's my position that they've taken punitive action against him."
The city manager began a "full review of (Binkley's) performance" in early December after allegations that Assistant Police Chief Eugene Brizzolara attempted to coach two police commanders on their testimony during a civil trial in which all three were defendants. It is also alleged that Brizzolara and Binkley attempted to remove the two commanders from the department by forcing them to take disability leaves.
Murphy said that neither Brizzolara nor Binkley tried to oust either commander.
But the commanders complained to city officials and were soon joined by other high-ranking police officials who criticized Binkley's management style, viewed as controlling and vindictive by many in the department.
The day news of the investigation broke, Brizzolara filed for a stress-related disability leave. Binkley has been assigned to evaluate the department's "early warning system," a program he created to warn him when an officer has a tendency to use excessive force. He is working at home.
Meanwhile, Binkley's supporters rallied to his defense during a City Council meeting Thursday, at which various community representatives praised him for improving relations between the department and minority groups.