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Settlement awards officer job, back pay

Thoma was fired after drunken hit-and-run

A Spokane police officer fired in 2009 after driving drunk while off duty, hitting a pickup with his truck and leaving the scene of the collision is likely to be rehired and get more than two years of back pay.

In a settlement mediated by the Washington State Human Rights Commission, Brad Thoma will be rehired March 1 in a demoted position of detective, if the Spokane City Council agrees to the deal on Monday. Prior to his firing in December 2009, Thoma was a sergeant.

Thoma also would be paid about $275,000 for back pay and benefits, and the city will pay his attorney $15,000. The back pay is based on the amount he earned as a sergeant.

Bob Dunn, Thoma’s attorney, said Thoma had a disability – alcoholism – that resulted from stress from his job. He argued that the police department knew Thoma struggled with alcoholism and didn’t try to get him help. Thoma filed a complaint about his firing with the Washington State Human Rights Commission soon after he was terminated.

City officials said Thoma was disciplined for his actions, not alcoholism. Assistant City Attorney Erin Jacobson said she is unaware of evidence that the city knew that Thoma was an alcoholic until he claimed to be one after the crash.

Jacobson said the demotion is a sign that the city believes that officers can be disciplined for off-duty illegal behavior.

“When you’re a police officer, you should know better,” she said.

Dunn likened the incident to someone who got into a collision as a result of seizure caused by epilepsy.

“If your disease is a result of your job and your employer knows it and you’re sick and need some help, it’s the duty of the employer” to get the employee help, Dunn said.

The settlement follows a trial last year in which a jury awarded Detective Jay Mehring $722,000, mostly for emotional distress and pain and suffering. Mehring was placed on unpaid leave from the police force after he was accused of threatening to kill his wife during a messy divorce. He was reinstated to the force and given back pay after a jury acquitted him in October 2008. Dunn, who also represented Mehring, was awarded an additional $833,000 in attorney’s fees.

The city is appealing that decision.

Dunn also represents former Detective Jeff Harvey, who filed a lawsuit earlier this month after being fired last year. Harvey was charged with obstruction of justice following a January 2011 encounter with a state Fish and Wildlife officer, but a jury voted 5-1 in favor of acquittal in September, and prosecutors declined to retry the case.

Interim Police Chief Scott Stephens said the settlement and judgment won’t stop him from disciplining officers who deserve punishment.

“I will make sure that what I do is legal, justifiable and follows due process, and I’ll do the right thing,” he said.

Stephens said he has faith that Thoma’s “supervisor will hold him accountable and require him to do the job that he’s supposed to do.”

He said it’s rare for officers to be caught driving drunk. He knows of a few who have been disciplined but have gone on to have successful law enforcement careers.

“Drunk driving does not necessarily have to be a career-ending event,” he said. “The key is that you don’t repeat the behavior.”

Thoma was driving a pickup on Sept. 23, 2009, when he hit another pickup near the intersection of Farwell Road and U.S. Highway 2, then drove away.

The victim and another driver followed Thoma to a supermarket, where Thoma told a state trooper he’d been planning to buy steaks.

Thoma, whose blood alcohol level was measured at 0.171 after the crash, avoided criminal prosecution under an agreement approved in Spokane County District Court. The deal stipulated that he use a breath test device to start his car. He also was required to complete a rehabilitation program within two years. Jacobson said Thoma is in compliance with the agreement.

Then-Chief Anne Kirkpatrick declined to allow him to install breath test equipment in his patrol car or to sign a waiver to allow him to drive his patrol car without the breath test equipment. The city offered to place him on “layoff status” to see if he qualified for another civil service job that didn’t require a driver’s license, Jacobson said.

That offer was rejected, and Thoma was fired.

Dunn said Thoma agreed to take a demotion “so he could put this behind him.”

“He’s a good police officer with a medical problem that needed to be addressed and is being addressed,” Dunn said.

This story was changed on Feb. 22, 2011 to correct an editor’s error regarding the outcome of Jeff Harvey’s trial.

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