The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Assistant police chief gets $1.5 million payout after hanging Nazi symbol

The 27-year department veteran admitted to making Holocaust jokes and shaving his facial hair into a ‘Hitler mustache’

Derek Kammerzell will get a $1.5 million settlement for resigning as an assistant police chief in Kent, Wash., after displaying a Nazi symbol on his office door. Kammerzell is a 30-year Army veteran who retired as a lieutenant colonel in 2019, according to the Seattle Times. (City of Kent)
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A Seattle-area police officer was walking by an assistant chief’s office in 2020 when he spotted something strange on the door — insignia of high-ranking Nazi SS officers.

The officer reported it to the police chief, which led city officials in Kent, Wash., to suspend the assistant chief — 27-year department veteran Derek Kammerzell — for two weeks without pay. But after taking heat from those who felt the punishment was too soft, those officials sought to push Kammerzell out of the department entirely.

Now, the city’s leaders have agreed to pay more than $1.52 million to make that happen. While acknowledging that the settlement is “a substantial sum,” they said they believe the payout lets them move on by ridding Kent of an employee whose presence would distract from the department’s mission of policing the city.

“It was clear that the Assistant Chief would have significant difficulty being an effective leader in the Department,” officials said Friday in a statement.

Neither the lawyer who represented Kammerzell during his disciplinary hearing nor the Kent Police Officers Association immediately responded to a request for comment from The Washington Post late Sunday.

But Kammerzell told the lawyer hired by the city to investigate the allegations against him that, although he knew the insignia was German, he didn’t know it was specifically connected to the Nazis and denied “expressing any positive sentiments about either Nazis or fascist governments,” according to a 28-page report on the investigation. He said he taped the insignia on his door because someone in the police department, reacting to Kammerzell’s last name, had nicknamed him the “German General” years before.

And the police union lawyer representing him said Kammerzell, amid a public firestorm, was being offered up as a “sacrificial lamb” to city politics, the Seattle Times reported.

That firestorm sparked in September 2020 when the officer spotted the insignia of oak leaves and diamonds taped above Kammerzell’s name plate, used the internet to confirm his hunch that it was tied to the Nazis and then sent a photograph of Kammerzell’s office door to the police chief.

That led the city to hire the Seattle-based law firm Stokes Lawrence to investigate. About four months after the insignia was reported, the lawyer who conducted the investigation concluded that the assistant chief, despite his denials, knew the insignia belonged to high-level Nazi officials who had attained the rank of “obergruppenfuhrer” in the SS, one of the most powerful and feared organizations in Nazi Germany.

The investigation uncovered several other instances in which co-workers said Kammerzell had mentioned the Nazis, the lawyer wrote in the report.

In one, a police officer told the investigator that Kammerzell had joked some 15 years earlier about his grandfather dying in the Holocaust — because he got drunk and fell out of a Nazi guard tower, the report states. When interviewed, Kammerzell confirmed he told the joke more than once.

In another, a detective said that several years earlier, Kammerzell showed him a picture on his cellphone in which Kammerzell had his facial hair shaved into “a Hitler mustache” while wearing lederhosen, dress native to parts of Germany, according to the report. As he showed off the picture, he explained that he had thrown up his hand in a “Heil Hitler” salute while being photographed with another city official on a different occasion, the detective said.

When the lawyer asked about the accusation, Kammerzell admitted that he had once sculpted his facial hair to look like Adolf Hitler’s, although he said it was one of many configurations he photographed as he was shaving it off. He denied flashing a Nazi salute and suggested that any photograph that appeared to show otherwise had caught him in the middle of waving.

In late December, the announcement of Kammerzell’s two-week suspension caused outrage among Kent residents, the Times reported, and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle blasted the city for a response that had left the organization “horrified.”

“By elevating and honoring Nazi imagery and titles and joking about the Holocaust, Kammerzell is supporting the extermination of six million Jews,” the federation said in a statement, adding: “The absence of true accountability demanded of Kammerzell and the sheer lack of consequences in this situation are shocking.”

Kent Mayor Dana Ralph and Police Chief Rafael Padilla later conceded that the suspension was inadequate, the Times reported.

Reacting to the blowback, officials put Kammerzell on paid administrative leave and asked him to resign, according to the city’s statement. Meanwhile, they announced he “would not be returned to work,” noting that, because they’d already disciplined him, federal and state laws’ “double jeopardy principles” prevented them from firing or otherwise reprimanding him again.

“As a result, we noted that his resignation would come at a high cost to the City,” Kent officials said Friday in their statement.

Unable to discipline him again and unwilling to put him back on the job, the city said it started negotiating with Kammerzell, who initially demanded more than $3.1 million for his resignation.

On Friday, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle said it had been working with Kent city officials since January and praised them for the months of work spent to get Kammerzell off the force.

“This is a step toward ensuring the safety and well-being of the Jewish community,” the group said in a statement, “and of other groups who were made to feel targeted and unsafe through Kammerzell’s actions.”