Panel votes 2-1 to restore job of Seattle police officer fired for dishonesty
A Seattle police officer fired for dishonesty will get his job back, along with back pay, after the city's Public Civil Service Commission ruled that termination was too harsh.
Seattle Times staff reporter
A Seattle police officer fired last May for dishonesty will get his job back, along with back pay, after the city's Public Civil Service Commission ruled that termination was too harsh.
Officer Eric Werner, 31, instead will be assessed a 30-day suspension, which will mean a deduction from his back pay.
Werner maintained he forgot about punching an agitated man when he was initially questioned in 2007 by Seattle police during an investigation into the man's complaint that he was repeatedly tazed.
Werner, during testimony last year before the commission, said he later remembered striking the man and decided to come clean while applying for a job with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office in May 2008. The hiring process included polygraph examinations.
The Sheriff's Office didn't hire Werner. But it notified the Seattle Police Department of his disclosure and, after an internal investigation, he was fired last May by interim Police Chief John Diaz for violating the department's honesty policy.
Werner appealed his firing in what was viewed as a key test of the honesty policy, which presumes officers will be fired for dishonesty in their official duties and was a cornerstone of new rules adopted in 2008 to address community concerns about police accountability.
Though the city and the Police Department could appeal the commission's ruling in King County Superior Court, such a move is extremely rare.
"The City Attorney's Office is analyzing the decision, and considering whether to appeal. No decision has been made yet," a spokeswoman for City Attorney Peter Holmes wrote in an e-mail today.
However, Werner's name has now been added to the so-called "Brady list," a list kept by the King County prosecutor's office of potential witnesses whose honesty has been called into question, said spokesman Dan Donohoe. Most of the 52 names on the list are law-enforcement officers, though the list also includes two former State Patrol crime-lab employees and a former employee of the King County Medical Examiner's Office, he said.
The prosecutor's office will be required to notify defense attorneys whenever Werner is called to testify against a criminal defendant, Donohoe said.
Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, was pleased with the Public Civil Service Commission's ruling. He said the department didn't follow its own rules in applying the dishonesty policy.
"Dishonesty is a very serious charge," he said, and to fire an officer, the department has to prove there is "clear and convincing evidence" that an officer lied about "a material fact" — something O'Neill insists didn't apply in Werner's case.
Werner will receive back pay for all but a 30-day period that constitutes his unpaid suspension, O'Neill said. Werner, who joined the Seattle police in 2000, earned nearly $106,000 in 2008 in regular and overtime pay.
Two of the three commissioners believed "that termination was the inappropriate form of punishment given the facts and circumstances of the case," according to the ruling issued Thursday. Instead, they ruled a 30-day suspension — the most severe punishment short of termination — was more appropriate.
In their majority opinion, the two commissioners — Seattle police Officer Joel Nark and Herb Johnson, a retired assistant Seattle police chief — pointed out that other officers in past cases involving dishonesty "either received no suspension of duties or only temporary suspension of duties."
Concluding that the department doesn't apply the dishonesty rule in an evenhanded way, Nark and Johnson also pointed out that to date, "no other employee has been terminated based on dishonesty."
Terry Carroll, the third commissioner and a former Superior Court judge, authored a partial dissent and disagreed with the decision to overturn Werner's termination, saying common sense and the law "require we give some deference to the Chief's decision."
He also wrote: "Although my colleagues are sincerely motivated, the opinion as to discipline appears based principally on sympathy for an officer with an apparent good record."
The original excessive-force investigation involving Werner cannot be reopened because of time-limit rules governed by the city's contract with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, according to the Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org