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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Firing of officer who kicked suspect is a good step, if it survives the effort to unfire him

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

The possibly good news is that the cop who kicked a handcuffed suspect in the nuts has been fired.

The possibly bad news? Two key forces that protect cops who commit misconduct have raced to this officer’s corner with their spit bucket and stool: the Spokane Police Guild and attorney Rocky Treppiedi, who played a key role in the city’s aggressively dishonest actions in the Otto Zehm case.

Sadly, the odds might be on their side. It has been all but impossible to fire a cop in Washington state, given the nature of labor law and very protective police union contracts. Even if a cop is fired, chances are good that he’ll show up in another department’s uniform before too long, kicking some smaller-town suspect in the nuts.

But first, the appeal.

Chief Craig Meidl fired Officer Kristofer Henderson this week for kicking a handcuffed, though very resistant, suspect in the genitals and cursing at him – an action Henderson took after the suspect fled from officers and gave them a whole lot of trouble. The arrest sounds like a confusing, frustrating, infuriating experience for the cops.

Which is no excuse.

Those within the department and the prosecutor’s office who reviewed the case found no law enforcement purpose for the kick. As senior deputy prosecutor Mark Cipolla wrote, it seemed “retaliatory” and “intentional,” with no apparent purpose for protecting the public or the officers. Cipolla, who also concluded that Henderson’s statements to police were “inconsistent” with body-camera footage, did not file misdemeanor charges against Henderson only because the man he kicked did not want to pursue charges.

A later internal investigation by the police department concluded Henderson had violated department policy on the use of force, and Meidl fired him.

It’s good to see an actual consequence for an officer’s bad behavior. We should have high standards for police officers, and swift, serious consequences for misconduct. That’s how trust is built. Instead, we tend to have extraordinarily forgiving standards and slow, minor consequences. That is how trust is torn down.

(Though, to digress, the initial consequence here raises a very pointed question about consistency. Henderson’s firing sits uncomfortably next to the decision in October by Meidl to hand-slap Officer Dan Lesser for an incident that seems, to this outsider, much worse than Henderson’s. Lesser, in a situation facing a very resistant, fleeing suspect, hoisted a police dog into a car as the suspect surrendered, after screaming “I’m going to f***ing kill you!” over and over. Meidl should have fired Lesser, but instead he handed him a one-day suspension.)

Henderson claims he did not use excessive force, and he apologized at the scene for the language he used. Treppiedi, a former city attorney who developed a reputation for aggressively countersuing anyone who filed complaints against the city and who publicly blamed Zehm for his own death long after everyone could see with their own two eyes what had really happened, says he believes Henderson will get his job back.

“He looks forward to vindication in the appeal through the grievance process with the Police Guild,” Treppiedi said in a news story in Thursday’s Spokesman-Review. “There was no retaliation and Officer Henderson apologized (to department officials) early on in the process about the words that he used.”

The process of trying to unfire a police officer begins with a simple internal appeal, sparked by a grievance. If he’s unsuccessful at that stage, Henderson can press on to independent arbitration between the guild and the city. In this state, arbitration is where police unfiring truly becomes high art – as the police contracts mesh neatly with extraordinarily labor-friendly laws – but grievances can advance into the courts if not resolved at that stage.

This protection has, over the years, produced cases of exceeding absurdity. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich tilted against this windmill for many years – repeatedly being forced to rehire deputies whose conduct would have gotten them canned from Costco.

SPD has had its share of such cases, as well, though the one that looms largest is actually a case where the officer was not rehired – though the city was put through a truly unbelievable battle just to fire a man who deserved it.

That was the Brad Thoma case. Thoma, who was fired for a 2009 drunken-driving hit-and-run accident, battled to get his job back for years, arguing the alcoholism that led to his crime was a disability. Thoma fought and fought, making ever more preposterous arguments, and the city damn near rehired him and gave him back pay in a settlement proposal that emerged from arbitration in 2012.

The conventional wisdom then, as now, is that you just can’t win against the guild. The legal deck is too stacked, the conventional wisdom held, and refusing the settlement would have been more expensive in the end. Mayor David Condon was ready to rehire Thoma and give him almost $250,000 in back pay.

But the City Council refused to approve the settlement – and was vindicated when Thoma went to court and lost.

He stayed fired. It was a victory for the city, for taxpayers, for trust in law enforcement.

The firing of Officer Henderson looks like another one. Let’s hope it holds up

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