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Members of Polis administration defend OEM chief after allegations of threatening behavior

An incident report said Mike Willis berated a female colleague so loudly that a warehouse camera caught other people looking in the direction of the noise.

DENVER — High-ranking leaders in Gov. Jared Polis' (D) administration are coming to the defense of Mike Willis, the chief of the Colorado Office of Emergency Management who was suspended for unprofessional and threatening behavior toward coworkers.

Willis, a combat veteran who served in the U.S. Army for 10 years and with the Colorado National Guard for 20 years, has been in his current role with the state since 2017.

What happened

As first reported by the Denver Post, an incident report said Willis berated a female colleague in October 2020 so loudly that a warehouse camera caught other people looking in the direction of the noise. 

The woman, working with Colorado’s Dept. of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, was overseeing a state emergency operation center. When this employee expressed a warehouse space would not be suitable for that team’s work, Willis reportedly cursed at her and screamed in her face.

One witness, a contractor, conveyed that Willis towered over the employee in a “dominating” way and feared the altercation could become physical.

Another person recounted a phone call they had with the woman, telling investigators she described Willis as forceful and saying he touched her temples. The woman told this person she contacted a supervisor who told her, “Well, Willis is from the military and they do things differently.”

The woman said in the report that the incident came as close to a physical encounter as she has ever experienced, noting she even previously worked for the Dept. of Corrections.

In March 2021, Willis' boss, Division Director Kevin Klein, sent him a letter explaining Willis' conduct violated state policy and that he has "demonstrated a pattern of inappropriate behavior that must be corrected." While Klein also expressed he knows Willis was burdened by the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Klein added further incidents like this one would result in more discipline, including possible termination.

In response to this particular incident, Klein suspended Willis for two days without pay, ordered Willis to write apology letters and sent him to a professional coaching program.

“I take responsibility for my missteps at [the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management] and have been held accountable for my actions," Willis said in a written statement provided to 9NEWS by the state.

Statements of support

9NEWS asked Polis' office when the Governor became aware of his Emergency Management chief's history of abusive behavior and what he planned to do about it now. While a response from Polis was not provided, the Governor's chief of staff responded saying they trust their agency leaders to handle personnel issues:

Lisa Kaufmann, Governor’s Chief of Staff: “Mike Willis is a combat veteran, retired brigadier general who served for many months as our joint incident commander of our COVID response, where he used his talents and moved with urgency to save lives of Coloradans. For his service to our state and country we are grateful. If there are personnel issues we trust our agency leaders to follow our policies and procedures to ensure a safe and productive workplace.”

Support also comes from Willis' supervisors:

Kevin Klein, Director of Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management: “Our employees work in a dynamic, high-pressure, high-impact, time-sensitive environment. Their work impacts lives. We take our employees’ well-being very seriously. The last two years have been extraordinarily challenging for [Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management] staff. When we have been aware of inappropriate employee behavior, we have responded accordingly.”

Colorado Dept. of Public Safety Executive Director Stan Hilkey: “We took action to address the concerns raised by employees in their interactions with Director Willis. He has worked to change his workplace demeanor...."

What's next?

The Colorado Department of Public Safety and the Colorado Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management (DHSEM) are in the process of hiring a vendor to perform a workplace assessment.

The goal would be for this outside party to conduct interviews, analyze department structure and leadership and make recommendations after observation.

The evaluation would begin after the state finalizes a vendor and would be complete by the end of the year.

The state has not announced a budget for this assessment.

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