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Originally published Tuesday, January 13, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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$815,000 settlement for fired Mountlake Terrace cop

A former Mountlake Terrace police sergeant whose views supporting the decriminalization of marijuana led to his dismissal in 2005 has won his job back and an $815,000 settlement from the city and Snohomish County.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A former Mountlake Terrace police sergeant whose views supporting the decriminalization of marijuana led to his dismissal in 2005 has won his job back and an $815,000 settlement from the city and Snohomish County.

However, Sgt. Jonathan Wender will not return to the streets. In addition to the financial settlement, the city has agreed to keep him on administrative leave and to pay him a $90,000-a-year salary for the next two years, when he will be able to retire after 20 years with the department.

In addition, he won back pay dating to when he was fired and the restoration of his retirement benefits, said his lawyer, Andrea Brenneke.

In a lawsuit, Wender, 42, had claimed the city and county violated his right to free speech by targeting him for his political beliefs. Wender, who holds a Ph.D., teaches full time at the University of Washington and has written and lectured extensively about police work and drug policy.

His law-enforcement career ended after the Snohomish County Prosecutor's Office labeled him a dishonest cop following an investigation into a drug case Wender handled in June 2005.

Wender had been called by a woman who believed she had seen a marijuana plant growing at her ex-husband's house. The woman was concerned about the couple's children, because drug use was prohibited by the parenting plan in their divorce settlement.

According to court documents, Wender responded by telephoning the man and telling him it was "foolish and irresponsible" to have a pot plant growing beside the house. Wender told him to "do what he needed to do" as soon as he hung up.

The woman, however, entered her ex-husband's house the next day and found a small marijuana-growing operation in a crawl space. She took photographs and gave them to narcotics detectives, who raided the home.

Wender's public and outspoken support of the decriminalization of marijuana for small-time users and street dealers had irked Wender's commanders over the years, according to court documents and depositions. They became suspicious of his handling of the June 2005 case and opened an investigation.

Meanwhile, the Snohomish County Prosecutor's Office also began looking at Wender because of the incident, even before the Police Department finished its internal investigation.

The Prosecutor's Office ultimately labeled him a so-called "Brady cop," a reference to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that requires prosecutors to turn over to criminal defendants any exculpatory evidence, including information that might call into question an officer's honesty or integrity.

The city and county have since agreed to rescind the "Brady cop" finding.

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But in 2005, that finding was enough to get Wender fired, even though he was never charged with a crime.

In addition to the free-speech issues, Wender's suit claimed the Prosecutor's Office and the Police Department did not provide him an opportunity to challenge the findings, in violation of his right to due process.

Wender had publicly challenged and criticized the department and its commanders over the years on a number of issues. He is affiliated with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a Massachusetts organization of police officers who oppose the current tactics used by police to fight drug crimes. Among its other members are former Seattle Police Chief Norm Stamper.

Brenneke said the settlement shows that Wender was targeted because of his political views — not questions about his integrity or honesty. Depositions of several other officers showed that, while they might have handled the June 2005 marijuana incident differently, they all felt that Wender's response was within his discretion as a police officer.

"He was enforcing the law," Brenneke said. "The department and prosecutors made an assumption that because of his beliefs about the war on drugs that Sgt. Wender wasn't doing his job. That's not true."

Telephone messages left with attorneys for the city of Mountlake Terrace and the county were not immediately returned Monday.

Wender is an admittedly unusual police officer. He holds a Ph.D. from Simon Fraser University, where his dissertation was titled "Policing as Poetry: Phenomenological and Aesthetic Reflections Upon the Bureaucratic Approach to Human Predicaments." He currently teaches full time at the UW's Sociology Department and lectures for the UW Law, Societies, and Justice program.

He said he has received strong support from fellow officers throughout the dispute, which he has found "overwhelming and humbling." And he said he misses the streets and won't rule out returning to police work.

"There is a tragic beauty in working the streets, [and] I miss the intimacy of making order out of chaos."

Mike Carter: 206-464-3706 or mcarter@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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