Derek Kammerzell, an assistant chief with the Kent Police Department, received a two-week suspension in July 2021 after displaying a Nazi symbol on the office door above his name.
Kammerzell, a 27-year veteran of the department, was suspended by Police Chief Rafael Padilla for violating city policy prohibiting harassment and discrimination and for unbecoming conduct in violation of police policy. Padilla took the action after Kammerzell posted the insignia attributed to a Nazi military rank, according to a July 14, 2021, Notice of Discipline document issued by Padilla to Kammerzell.
“I am deeply embarrassed by this incident,” Kammerzell said in a Dec. 30 email to the Kent Reporter. “I wish I could take it back. I know now what that rank represents, and that is not what I value or who I am. The expectations for an assistant chief are, rightfully, incredibly high. I do my best every day to meet and exceed those expectations.”
The details of the incident were released in December after a public records request to the city of Kent by a group called No Secret Police for documents about the discipline and investigation of Kammerzell. That anonymous group emailed the documents Dec. 27 to the Kent Reporter and the Kent City Council.
“The City of Kent hired an independent law firm that has extensive experience in employee investigations to investigate thoroughly the alleged conduct of Assistant Police Chief Derek Kammerzell,” according to a Dec. 28 statement released by the city’s communications staff to the Kent Reporter. “The city then hired a second employment law firm to review the investigation and recommend appropriate discipline. Based on labor law and the advice of the employment law firm, the city believes a two-week suspension was an appropriate and defensible response to the conduct identified in the investigation.”
Mayor Dana Ralph and Padilla each were emailed a set of questions by the Kent Reporter about the incident and suspension. Rather than responding individually, the city issued a statement on behalf of the leaders through the communications staff.
“The independent investigation showed Assistant Chief Kammerzell exercised poor judgment in this situation despite an otherwise stellar 27-year career with the Kent Police Department,” according to the statement. “He has apologized for his conduct and, since his return to work, has fulfilled his responsibilities in full compliance with the department’s values and policies. The Police Department expects Assistant Chief Kammerzell will continue to abide by the department’s values and policies in the future.”
Padilla placed Kammerzell on paid administrative leave in March 2021 pending the outcome of the investigation, according to city documents. Padilla decided to suspend Kammerzell without pay, but gave him the option to use two weeks of vacation time, according to city documents.
Kammerzell issued the apology internally. He has not apologized to the Kent City Council.
“I think he spoke to his peers,” Council President Bill Boyce said in a Dec. 29 phone interview. “I know he spoke to the chief. He didn’t address the council. I wanted him to, but he chose not to go down that path.”
Boyce said Mayor Ralph kept the council informed about the incident and investigation during executive sessions after council meetings. The council is allowed to discuss personnel matters behind closed doors. As mayor, Ralph is responsible for city employees and not the council.
“The City of Kent and Kent Police Department condemn racism in all its forms and are committed to investigate and, when necessary, impose appropriate discipline for every violation of our values and policies,” according to the city statement. “The city took the allegations against Assistant Chief Kammerzell very seriously and stands by its independent investigation and discipline.”
Posting of symbol
A Kent Police officer emailed Padilla on Sept. 24, 2020, about his concern that an inappropriate symbol had been posted over Assistant Chief Kammerzell’s nameplate outside his office, according to city documents. The officer researched the symbol and discovered it was the rank of insignia of an Nazi SS general called SS-Obergruppenfuhrer. Padilla was out of the office at the time, but asked another assistant chief to remove the emblem from the door.
The city hired an investigator from the Seattle-based law firm of Stokes Lawrence to do an investigation of Kammerzell and the allegation by an officer that he displayed a Nazi symbol on the nameplate above his door.
According to city documents, during the course of the investigation, the city also asked the investigator to investigate allegations by a detective that Kammerzell asked him to Photoshop a personal photograph of a dog while on duty, and at that time, showed the detective a photograph of himself with a Hitler mustache wearing lederhosen, and then referenced another photograph in which Kammerzell was with an elected official and raised his hand in a “hail Hitler” gesture.
The investigator interviewed several police department members via Zoom about the allegations. Another assistant chief said the Nazi symbol was related to a television series called “The Man in the High Castle” and was associated with the second-in-command on the show.
An officer also alleged that about 15 years ago, Kammerzell joked more than once that his grandfather died in the Holocaust after getting drunk and falling off the guard tower.
Kammerzell admitted to the investigator, according to city documents, that he placed what he described as a “German rank insignia” above the nameplate on his door. He recalled that years ago someone in the department gave him the nickname “German General” due to his last name and German heritage. He said he embraced the nickname. The symbol on his door was up for about two weeks.
Kammerzell also told the investigator that a co-worker encouraged him to watch the TV show “The Man in the High Castle.” He said one of the main characters had the name of Obergruppenfuhrer and that a co-worker then gave him that nickname and other assistant chiefs began to call him that, according to city documents.
Kammerzell said he Googled the name Obergruppenfuhrer and a result displayed the symbol that he then printed and placed above his door, according to city documents. He said the term meant senior group leader and that caught his attention because he is head of the Investigations Division. He said the two diamonds in the image were similar to the two stars rank he has on his uniform.
He told the investigator he thought the symbol had a NATO equivalent and was a German military rank still used, according to city documents. He said when he placed it above his door he was unaware it was an SS Nazi rank but rather displayed the symbol to further make fun of himself as the “German General.” He said he was aware the insignia was associated with the TV show “The Man in the High Castle” and that he had watched the series.
The series was loosely based Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, and takes a look at what the world might look like had the outcome of World War II turned out differently, according to rottentomatoes.com. In this dystopian scenario, the Axis powers won the war, leading to the United States being divided into three parts: an area controlled by the Japanese, a Nazi-controlled section and a buffer zone between the two.
Kammerzell told the investigator that he suggested to others the police department’s new uniforms could be modeled similarly to the Nazi symbol.
Kammerzell denied discussing Nazis at work, other than the television series and another documentary called “Hunting Hitler,” which contemplated that Hitler may have survived World War II. He denied expressing any positive sentiments about either Nazis or fascist governments. He admitted to telling the Holocaust joke more than once about his grandfather dying.
The assistant chief denied showing a detective a photo of himself in a Hitler mustache or making a hail Hitler gesture with the mayor or other public figure.
The investigator determined that Kammerzell was aware of the Nazi associations with the insignia and the name of Obergruppenfuhrer because of watching the TV series and his Google searches, according to city documents.
The evidence, according to the investigator, also suggests Kammerzell referred to himself as Obergruppenfuhrer and that he compared the Nazi symbol more than once to the current Kent Police uniforms.
After receiving the investigator’s report and another law firm investigation that recommended appropriate discipline, Padilla decided to suspend Kammerzell for two weeks.
Prior to that decision, Padilla had a pre-disciplinary meeting on July 12, 2021, with Kammerzell, Kent Police Officers Association (union) President Wayne Graff, Kent Police Officers Association member Ken Clay and two Kent Police Officers Association attorneys from the Tacoma-based law firm McGavick Graves. Present for the city were City Attorney Pat Fitzpatrick and outside counsel from the Seattle-based Summit Law Group.
Padilla said in his internal affairs Notice of Discipline report that he hired an outside investigator because Kammerzell is an assistant chief, and because of the nature of the allegations and in consultation with the city attorney and human resources department.
The investigator conducted a fact-finding report and was not retained to make a decision.
Padilla in his report also denied the Kent City Council influenced his decision as alleged by the police union. He said employee discipline is up to him and not the council.
“The City Council is aware of this matter only because it was brought to their attention by members of the community who requested documents regarding the complaint through the Public Records Act,” Padilla wrote. “I have received no direction from the City Council about what disciplinary action I should take and I could not relinquish my authority even if it was given. To the extent I am considering any level of discipline, it is due to your (Kammerzell) own conduct and not due to outside influences.”
Padilla wrote the investigation was about whether Kammerzell taped a Nazi insignia above his name on the office door and whether he knew it was a Nazi symbol. He added the investigation was never about whether Kammerzell is a Nazi or anti-Semite.
“I have no reason to believe then or now that you are,” Padilla wrote to Kammerzell.
Padilla said there was evidence that Kammerzell violated city policy prohibiting harassment and discrimination and that he committed unbecoming conduct in violation of police policy for posting the insignia.
“The insignia you posted is for a high ranking official with the SS,” Padilla wrote. “To associate oneself with the SS, even negligently, is to associate oneself with the most despicable acts that human beings have perpetrated against each other, perhaps ever.”
Padilla wrote the act was unbecoming conduct because Kammerzell’s actions reflected negatively on the department and brought discredit to the department.
“This occurred at a time in which police credibility is under attack over allegations of racism and biased policing,” Padilla wrote.
Padilla wrote he did not find that Kammerzell violated the department’s truthfulness policy by saying he was unaware of the Nazi connection to the symbol.
Padilla also found no reason to suspend Kammerzell for asking a co-worker to Photoshop a personal photo of a dog, showing a photo of himself with a Hitler mustache, or for a gesture he made while with an elected official. Padilla issued a verbal warning to Kammerzell about asking a subordinate employee to edit a personal photo.
Kammerzell issues response
Kammerzell said he apologized to Padilla after the incident.
“I understand the egregious error in judgement on my part,” Kammerzell wrote in the Dec. 30 email to the Kent Reporter. “As an assistant chief, I hold myself, my leaders, and my subordinate leaders to a very high standard; a standard that I did not meet when I posted the German rank on my door. I can assure you that my action in posting the rank on my door was not intended to offend anyone, nor to suggest any sympathy whatsoever with Nazis or any other type of intolerance.”
Kammerzell explained why he posted the symbol, obtained after a Google search.
“My understanding when I posted the rank on my door was that it was a rank roughly equivalent to my own rank at KPD (Kent Police Department),” Kammerzell said. “I thought this rank was still in use by the German military. I was attempting to poke fun at myself. This is because, over the many years I have worked at KPD, I have been called ‘the German General’ from time to time. I think this is because I am of German descent and because I served for many years in the National Guard — to include multiple combat tours.
“I retired from the National Guard in good standing as a lieutenant colonel. Accordingly, some KPD employees teased me from time to time — calling me the “German General.” When I posted the rank on my door, I was simply attempting to acknowledge that nickname.”
But Kammerzell said that is no excuse.
“Clearly, I should have been careful to research the rank I posted on my door to make sure I fully understood its significance,” he said. “I failed to do to that. That is my fault, and I regret it deeply.”
The posting had nothing to do with any support of Nazism, Kammerzell said.
“I do want to be crystal clear that I am not a Nazi,” he said. “I am not a Nazi sympathizer. I am not a racist. I do not condone, nor would I tolerate, that ideology or any similar to it. I dutifully served my country for 30 years in the National Guard. When I served in the National Guard, I fought for everyone’s right to be free. Please know that I would never intentionally engage in conduct that was discriminatory or non-inclusive.”
Kammerzell began his law enforcement career in 1994 at the Kent Police Department. He is currently assigned as the assistant chief to the Investigations Division, which includes detectives, Special Investigations Unit, Internal Affairs, Neighborhood Response Team, Community Education, Code Enforcement, Crime Analyst and Intelligence Led Policing efforts. He was promoted to assistant chief in 2014 by then-Police Chief Ken Thomas.
“I have served the Kent community faithfully for 27 years as a KPD employee,” he said. “Before this incident, I have never been disciplined and I have an otherwise laudable performance record.”
Padilla confirmed in his discipline report that Kammerzell has had no prior disciplinary actions.
Kammerzell was asked if he thought the two-week suspension was fair.
“I do,” he said. “I did not challenge this discipline and accepted it immediately. I will work the rest of my career at KPD to overcome this singular mistake.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated Jan. 3 to correct the year in the secondary headline and that Kammerzell was suspended without pay but given the option to use vacation hours.