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Protesters press lawyer to drop officer’s lawsuit

From right, Justin Lancaster, Eric Stapleton and Rosemary Blanks hold signs Wednesday to protest the lawsuit by fired Spokane police Officer Bradley Thoma at the corner of Post Street and Riverside Avenue near the office of Thoma’s attorney, Robert Dunn. (Jesse Tinsley)
From right, Justin Lancaster, Eric Stapleton and Rosemary Blanks hold signs Wednesday to protest the lawsuit by fired Spokane police Officer Bradley Thoma at the corner of Post Street and Riverside Avenue near the office of Thoma’s attorney, Robert Dunn. (Jesse Tinsley)

Group says city shouldn’t be forced to defend firing

Protesters gathered at Post Street and Riverside Avenue on Wednesday to decry the possibility that Spokane police Sgt. Bradley N. Thoma could be considered a victim of discrimination when he was fired last month after a drunken, off-duty crash.

Rosemary Blanks carried a sign that read: “Cops should have consequences, too.”

Thoma lost his $91,000-a-year job when he couldn’t reach agreement with the city on how to continue working in the face of anti-alcohol constraints imposed on him under a deferred prosecution for a September drunken driving case.

Two days after his Dec. 21 firing, Thoma, through his attorney Robert Dunn, filed a $4 million claim against the city that contends Thoma was wrongfully terminated. In addition, Thoma is pursuing a separate departmental grievance through the Police Guild, which demands he be reinstated with back pay.

The small group of protesters, who demonstrated outside Dunn’s office, had a simple message.

“We’d like the attorney to drop the lawsuit,” said organizer Brad Wiedrich. “Why should the city have to spend tax dollars to defend this lawsuit?”

Tom Weckesser said he joined the protest because his brother lost a leg due to a drunken driver. If officers are paid to uphold the law, he said, “They should have to live by the law.”

Protesters objected to an earlier statement by Dunn comparing alcoholism with cancer, but Dunn said in an interview that he stands by his statement.

“He doesn’t want to be an alcoholic any more than someone with cancer wants to have cancer,” said Dunn.

State and federal law recognize alcoholism as a disease requiring employers to accommodate treatment and recovery, he said.

The city has until March to respond to Thoma’s claim. If it refuses to pay, Thoma can then file suit against the city.

Wiedrich said he isn’t arguing about alcoholism as a disease. “I’m arguing it was his choice to get inside his vehicle.”

Thoma, who joined the department in 1989, was arrested Sept. 23 for driving under the influence and hit and run after leaving the scene of an accident at U.S. Highway 2 and Farwell Road. Thoma was off duty at the time and his pickup struck the rear of another pickup, whose driver followed Thoma to a supermarket where he was arrested.

Thoma had a blood-alcohol level of 0.17 percent following his arrest. State law presumes intoxication at 0.08 percent.

The deferred prosecution allows Thoma to undertake an alcohol treatment regimen in exchange for the charge being dismissed after five years of probation.

The hit-and-run misdemeanor was dismissed after Thoma paid to repair the other driver’s vehicle.

As part of the deferred prosecution, Thoma was issued an ignition interlock driver’s license that requires him to drive personal vehicles with a device that measures a driver’s breath for signs of alcohol before turning on the engine. Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick argued that the city could not place the device on police vehicles, partly because it would be impractical, and because of that, Thoma couldn’t perform his duties.

She also declined to sign a waiver available to employers that would allow Thoma to drive a city vehicle without the interlock device.

“If you are not authorized to drive a personal vehicle without such device, I am hard pressed to see how you could ever be authorized to drive an emergency vehicle without one,” Kirkpatrick said in a letter on Dec. 30.

Kirkpatrick offered Thoma a layoff from his job as a commissioned officer but provided the opportunity for him to qualify for another noncommissioned Civil Service job within the city during the period of his deferred prosecution.

He could have returned as a detective after the ignition interlock condition was removed after two years of treatment, Dunn said.

The deal offered by the chief was no guarantee of employment and was a change in the department’s handling of previous DUI cases, Dunn said. “They could have found an office job for him,” he said.

Thoma is the first officer to face department sanctions under a change in state law in 2009 requiring the ignition devices, he said.

Other departments provide officers continued work under such circumstances, he said, and there is wide recognition that alcohol problems in the ranks stem in part from high job stress.

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