February 27, 2013 in City

Vestal: Bill stood slim chance, unlike fired cops, it seems

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

On the Web: Find an archive of columns by Shawn Vestal at www.spokesman.com.

It’s official: If a cop lies or commits a crime, it’s not necessarily a firing offense.

The Washington Legislature’s cool with that.

If you’ve been paying any attention, you know this is already the state of our state. Cops who merely lie or break the laws can not only hang onto their jobs, they can expect lavish rewards if their bosses get the crazy idea that they should be fired.

Arbitration rights intended to protect employees from capricious decisions by bad bosses have instead turned into a full protection plan for cops who do things that might get them fired as a grocery bagger.

Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich took a run at changing that, but the idea – carried by state Rep. Kevin Parker and state Sen. Mike Padden, both local Republicans – died whimpering in committee last week. After failing to gather enough support in the Senate, it wasn’t even introduced in the House committee.

“I knew it was going to be a storm, to some degree,” Parker said. “I didn’t know it was going to be this much.”

Ozzie’s idea seems simple and solid: If a cop lies or breaks the law and an arbitrator agrees that the cop has lied or broken the law, the arbitrator cannot overrule a decision to fire the cop.

Still, going in, the conventional wisdom on Ozzie’s idea was: DOA. The unions won’t go for it, and the unions rule, this line of thinking goes. But Parker and Padden stood up. Parker gathered the different parties, tried to sharpen and narrow the language and make it acceptable to all, and, he says, got “very close” to a proposal that might pass.

But not close enough.

If anyone would be suited to bringing different parties together, it’s Parker. A staunch conservative, he remains staunchly polite and open. He steers clear of the incendiary and looks for agreement. Often, he makes a point of describing people who differ with him or oppose his bills as “really nice guys.”

Some of the pushback to Ozzie’s idea is understandable. Unions should protect their members, and arbitration is a safeguard against overreaching, tyrannical bosses. When arbitrators rule against a chief or sheriff, it’s often because they failed to follow the rules. We don’t want to pass a law that puts an honest cop in a bind if, for example, he makes a mistake on a police report.

All these objections are fine and fair and utterly beside this particular point. Right now, our arbitration process privileges the rights of a bad cop over the rights of the public not to have bad cops.

Here is where it ended up, in all its radical glory: “If an employer removes or discharges a person who holds an office, place, position, or employment under this chapter for committing an illegal act or an act of dishonesty or untruthfulness, and an arbitrator finds that the employer established that the person engaged in the act or acts by clear and convincing evidence, the employer is deemed to have had just cause for the removal or discharge, and the arbitrator may not overturn the removal or discharge.”

Padden is chair of the Law and Justice Committee in the Senate, and he gave the bill a hearing. But it wasn’t put to a vote when it became obvious that the support wasn’t there. In the House, state Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, said that left him little reason to pursue it in his committee, given the amount of other pressing business.

Jamie Daniels, the executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, testified in opposition to the bill. Daniels emphasized that her organization does not support criminal cops or lying cops – but she and her organization’s membership think the bill went too far, in pursuit of a problem that doesn’t exist.

She also denied that her group, which is not a union but which represents unionized deputies and officers, holds some kind of inordinate sway with lawmakers. If this were a case of the big unions and their lawmaker puppets, she said, it would more likely break down along party lines. But in this case, opposition came from both sides.

“I feel like we made a better case that this law is not needed,” she said.

I told Daniels that it has come to seem, at least around here, that cops are unfireable. Time and time again, behavior that seems like slam-dunk firing offenses turn out to be, instead, air balls. Among the offenses that have proven to be insufficient for dismissing a Spokane officer or deputy are: kicking a handcuffed suspect, destroying evidence in an overzealous search, drunken driving, mishandling evidence and repeatedly lying to supervisors.

Daniels noted that officers are being fired for lying or breaking the law; she said that since 2006, 66 officers in various capacities around the state have lost their jobs.

I’d hate to know what they did to deserve it.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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