City officials weigh public backlash against financial risk
A controversial plan to rehire an alcoholic police officer fired after an off-duty drunken driving crash, and to give him back pay, has officials scrambling to explain the decision and dampen public backlash.
Mayor David Condon said Wednesday the proposed settlement with former Spokane police Sgt. Brad Thoma sends the wrong message, but Condon added he nevertheless supports the settlement because it avoids the risk of losing a costly lawsuit. Meanwhile, Sharon Ortiz, state Human Rights Commission director, said she isn’t ready to give the settlement her stamp of approval, despite her agency playing a role in crafting the settlement.
“The City’s settlement with Mr. Thoma sends the wrong message to our community,” Condon said in a news release. “It does not represent our values. This settlement is an example of seemingly special treatment enjoyed by a police officer to the frustration of the citizens who employ him.”
But, he said, “This settlement is a legal solution to a problem of financial risk for the City. We are proposing this settlement to protect taxpayer dollars. Within the state legal constraints we operate under, this is a good legal and financial decision for the City.”
Thoma was fired in December 2009 following an arrest for driving under the influence and leaving the scene of an accident he caused when he struck a pickup truck with his vehicle. Thoma’s lawyer, Bob Dunn, argued that his client has a disability – alcoholism – that the police department knew about but did not help Thoma get help with. The city said it did not know Thoma was an alcoholic until after the accident.
The settlement before the council seeks to resolve three pending issues, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said in the news release: a grievance by the Spokane Police Guild, a civil claim by Thoma and a complaint by the state Human Rights Commission asserting the city failed to accommodate a disability.
However, Ortiz, the commission’s executive director, said although a local investigator signed off on the settlement of the commission’s complaint, she isn’t prepared to do so yet.
“They have a settlement agreement, but it’s not signed by me,” Ortiz said. “So it’s not a settlement agreement. All parties have to sign for it to be an agreement.”
Because the case has not been settled, she declined to comment further.
“It’s being assigned to a senior investigator for further investigation,” she said. “Based on the facts of the case, I want further investigation.”
The council is scheduled to vote on the deal Monday. If they approve the proposed settlement, Thoma will be rehired March 1 in the demoted position of detective and be paid about $275,000 for more than two years back pay and benefits. He was a sergeant when he was fired. The city would also have to pay Dunn $15,000.
“Citizens are rightly upset by this settlement, and I fear that their frustration could impede our ability to help rebuild confidence in our police department,” Condon said. “Our citizens’ perceptions of our officers are tainted by situations like this.”
The city was unaware of Ortiz’s decision Wednesday to withhold signing off on the settlement, and Feist said it was unclear whether that would have bearing on the proposal going to the council for a vote.
“We honestly don’t know what it means yet,” Feist said. “We had been working with the (commission’s) local investigator. Our understanding was that it was going to a vote with the commission tomorrow, and we were unaware that it may need another layer of approval.”
The settlement in part addresses a recent change in law, Feist said. Under a deferred prosecution agreement, Thoma was required to use an ignition interlock device to drive, but then-Chief Anne Kirkpatrick declined to allow him to install such a device in his patrol car. The city offered to place him on “layoff status” to see if he qualified for another civil service job that did not require a driver’s license, but Thoma rejected that offer and was fired.
However, the law requiring the interlock device changed retroactively in January 2011, making it unnecessary. Thoma’s full driving privileges were restored as a result.
Some City Council members expressed concern about the proposed settlement Wednesday.
“I think this council has been united in rebuilding the trust in our police department,” said Council President Ben Stuckart. “I think this goes against that.”
However, he said he saw a need to balance building trust between the community and law enforcement with the need to do what’s best with taxpayer dollars.
“That has to be weighed in our decision-making, and I think each council member is doing that right now.”
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