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Sun., Feb. 26, 2012

Smart Bombs: You booze, you still lose

My emotions have weaved between outrage and resignation since the news broke about the drunken Spokane police officer who was awarded a job and back pay after challenging his 2009 termination. Since then, the decision has been suspended.

Currently, my thoughts are idling on resignation – as in, I wish he would, but I doubt he will.

The more I read up on the special place that alcoholism has within the Americans with Disabilities Act, the more perverse this situation seems. A casual drinker is not covered; a problem drinker is. (Legal tip for police officers: If the stress of the job is just too much, you’re better off abusing alcohol than drugs.)

Now, most people after being caught driving blotto would probably explain to their employers that this irresponsible act was a rare event. But the federal law actually has a built-in incentive to confess to being an alcoholic, since that is a protected disability.

Sure enough, Sgt. Brad Thoma said he had a drinking problem, which led to him hitting a pickup with his truck while off duty. He also fled the scene but was able to make that charge disappear with a plea bargain. Once that deal was cut, all he needed was a smart attorney to put him on the glide path to reinstatement.

It was at this point of realization that I thought, “He’s lucky he’s an alcoholic.” But if he truly is, then he’s already dealing with his own personal hell. I’m not much of a drinker, but I can attest to how this affliction is a nightmare for the alcoholic and their loved ones.

Winning this case – and the $275,000 in back pay – doesn’t mean the nightmare would end. Indeed, if he returns to the job that he says triggered his drinking, it could get worse, especially since the mayor and his boss say they don’t want him back. That’s like tearing off a nicotine patch after a cancer diagnosis.

If Thoma were to resign from the force to seek a less stressful job, he would show that he’s serious about whipping his affliction. He would also help the department repair the dent to its image.

Speeding tickets? The best explanation I’ve heard for the recent spate of wrongful termination cases in the Spokane Police Department is that the ghost of Otto Zehm loomed large. Anne Kirkpatrick wasn’t the police chief when Zehm died in police custody, but she could show us she meant business about changing the culture.

Perhaps in her zeal to reform the department, she zoomed by some administrative details along the way, which allowed embattled officers’ go-to attorney, Bob “What’s Done is Never” Dunn, to pick apart the process.

If true, then that’s a mark against her legacy as police chief. At the same time, who could blame her for thinking: “What’s an officer gotta do to get fired around here?”

Dunn deal. Here’s a tongue-in-cheek suggestion for Spokane officials: Hire attorney Bob Dunn for $500,000 a year. He seems to know more than the city about due process in termination cases. An added benefit would be keeping him on the sidelines in officer-related lawsuits.

While that salary would be far higher than anyone else’s at City Hall, compare it with the awards he’s been able to win, and those he has pending: Jay Mehring, $720,000, with an additional $833,000 in attorney’s fees; Brad Thoma, $290,000 (pending); and Jeff Harvey, lawsuit pending.

Then again, why would he want to take a pay cut?

Sobriety test. As I read the article about Senior Officer Alan D. Edwards using Spokane Police Department resources to find a woman he had chatted up at a bar, I grew nervous.

A bar? Oh no! Does this mean he was … but the article went on to say there was no allegation that Edwards was drunk when he paid a surprise visit to the woman’s house in the middle of the night.

Whew! If true, that would undermine a disability defense.

Associate Editor Gary Crooks can be reached at or (509) 459-5026. Follow him on Twitter @GaryCrooks.

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