Disciplining police can be thorny issue for cities

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — A Mountlake Terrace police detective was suspended in September after he failed to report a woman’s allegations that an Edmonds police officer had molested a young relative, according to documents obtained by The Herald.

The Edmonds officer, Daniel Lavely, later resigned after being accused of custodial sexual misconduct in an unrelated case. Lavely was convicted in August. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service still is investigating the molestation allegations, a spokesman said earlier this month.

The Mountlake Terrace detective’s suspension was described in an internal city memo that lays out other problems at the police department that have led to officers being disciplined or fired over the past five years.

The nine-page memo details incidents including a case in which an officer played a prank on a supervisor using fake feces and another in which an officer developed a personal relationship with a prisoner in another state. Multiple officers also have landed in trouble for ditching their patrols to hang out together in coffee shops, documents show.

The memo, dated March 22, was written as city officials say they were keeping tabs on labor-dispute rulings where arbitrators reversed discipline decisions and reinstated police officers who had been fired for misconduct.

The issue is playing out on a larger stage than just Mountlake Terrace. Cities seeking to fire troubled cops run into a complex web of labor contracts, arbitrators’ rulings, case law, and state and federal court decisions. State police experts say that bringing back fired officers has been a sore point for years, and some are exploring changes in state law to make it stop.

The topic has drawn increased public scrutiny in recent weeks, since an arbitrator ordered the state Department of Corrections to reverse the firings of three Monroe Correctional Complex officers after they were accused of misconduct, dishonesty and dereliction of duty in the days surrounding the 2011 murder of officer Jayme Biendl.

Police unions in Everett and Marysville also attracted controversy after they challenged the firings of officers who had been caught up in high-profile criminal cases.

In Mountlake Terrace, the city has fired five police officers since 2008, including one who was reinstated and received back pay under an arbitrator’s ruling, according to police department records.

The city and the police guild have engaged in a number of legal battles involving officer discipline since Greg Wilson took over as police chief in 2008. Many of Wilson’s decisions, such as denying raises for officers who’ve been disciplined, have been challenged by the guild.

In labor proceedings, Wilson described his leadership as “firm, fair and consistent.” City documents show that Wilson was hired in part to improve accountability among police officers. Guild leaders say Wilson is violating employee rights, breaking labor laws and imposing discipline that is unfair and excessive.

Labor disputes were a challenge at the city for years before Wilson’s arrival.

More serious disagreements have sprung up since 2011, when the guild hired Seattle-based labor attorney James Cline and began filing more grievances, Guild President Dan MacKenzie said last week.

The city began pushing back, he said.

One of the disputes involves the guild challenging the Mountlake Terrace detective’s two-day suspension linked to the Edmonds sex case.

The detective heard about the molestation allegations against Lavely in April 2012, documents show. The next month, Lavely had sex with a woman while she was being detained in his custody, a felony. The former officer is set to be sentenced in September.

An internal investigation determined that the Terrace detective didn’t break state law by not reporting the allegations, but that he violated the department’s ethics code. The memo alleges that if the detective had come forward, Lavely would have been under investigation in May 2012 and unable to commit the custodial sexual misconduct.

The memo detailing officers’ problems was written by assistant city manager Scott Hugill to city manager John Caulfield, who is leaving next month to take a post in Pierce County.

Wilson, the police chief, said he knew a memo had been created, but that he hadn’t seen its contents before The Herald obtained a copy under state records laws.

The newspaper was seeking public records about officers’ on-duty collisions. In April, a state labor-management board ordered the city to throw out discipline records regarding an officer’s on-duty crash. The board determined that Wilson was changing discipline procedures without negotiating the changes with the guild. The city is appealing the ruling.

In other Snohomish County cities, such as Lake Stevens, police departments have agreed to keep officers with discipline issues on the job in exchange for labor groups dropping grievances, records show. In one case in Mountlake Terrace, the city offered to reverse the firing of a former officer, and let him resign instead, if the guild dropped its grievance. There was talk of a $25,000 settlement agreement favoring the officer, according to the labor proceedings. The offer was declined.

That officer was fired in January 2012 after repeated reprimands, including one incident when his coworkers said he showed up for training smelling of alcohol, according to the memo. He also had neglected to follow up on domestic-violence cases as required by law. An arbitrator reinstated the officer a year later with partial back pay and benefits, worth $74,863. He then resigned.

In another Terrace case, an officer was disciplined for creating a situation in which a supervisor was tricked into cleaning a mess made to look like feces. The supervisor was secretly videotaped during the cleanup. The recording later was watched by officers for laughs, the memo says. The officer who created the mess already had been in trouble multiple times, records show. He allegedly lied about the prank and was fired for dishonesty. The prank became an issue at Lavely’s misconduct trial, when Terrace officers became potential witnesses.

In his first few years as chief, Wilson also began more strictly enforcing the city’s “two-in-blue” rule that forbids more than two uniformed officers from hanging out together in businesses. On-duty socializing was an officer-safety issue, and it didn’t look good to the public, he said recently.

Many police departments adopted similar rules after a gunman killed four officers in a Lakewood coffee shop in 2009. In fall 2009, Wilson cracked down on officers who were flouting the rule, according to the memo.

The year before, a Mountlake Terrace police officer was fired after allegedly lying to investigators about her relationship with a former Lynnwood deputy police chief who was in prison in California for stealing money and drugs. Her statements about how often she was visiting Paul Watkins, and how often they were speaking on the phone, conflicted with prison records.

Another Terrace officer resigned in 2010 after he was caught lying about damage to the laptop in his patrol car. In 2007, he said the damage was from an accident involving his flashlight. When he applied at another department years later, he admitted that he’d actually punched the computer out of anger.

Other violations included unsafe pursuits, officers who were not using their lights and sirens when speeding to emergency calls, and officers not wearing their seat belts.

Wilson said less serious rule-breaking must be reviewed for potential discipline, the same as more troubling offenses.

“The public gives us a tremendous amount of authority, and they expect us to adhere to policies, procedures and state law, and there’s an expectation that we will police ourselves,” Wilson said.

The guild says the chief is unfairly targeting front-line officers for discipline.

“What we were asking for was fairness and accountability on all levels,” MacKenzie said. “Instead what happened was the sledgehammer got dropped on the lower-level guys.”

Disputes between police departments and their unions aren’t unique to Mountlake Terrace. Police unions have a duty to represent officers who get in trouble and to fight for fair compensation and safe working conditions, said Mitch Barker, executive director at the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

The group is considering seeking legislation next year that would prevent a cop who has been fired for lying or other serious misconduct from being allowed back on the force, Barker said.

In addition, labor contracts sometimes require that officers who are about to be fired be given the option to resign instead. It happens in other professions, too. The Mountlake Terrace police officers’ contract doesn’t include that sort of clause.

Leaving quietly instead of being fired can affect an officer’s chances of landing another job and what records about their employment remain public. Some even negotiate for the city’s silence. That’s what happened when the former Lake Stevens police chief left last fall.

Even if officers are fired for dishonesty — which can tarnish their ability to be credible witnesses in criminal trials — they can get their jobs back by pressing grievances under labor contracts. The issue has been an “uncomfortable discussion” in law enforcement for the past 10 years, Barker said. A legislative answer could be sought next year.

“I don’t think any of us, labor or management, want to see people put back out on the law enforcement field that, behind closed doors, we all agree shouldn’t be doing the job,” Barker said.

The Mountlake Terrace Police Department has the equivalent of 38 full-time employees, including 28 police officers. Its budget for 2013 is $5.2 million. Only one officer has been reinstated after being fired since Wilson’s arrival.

In 2008, the city paid a consultant $19,400 to review problems at the police department and make recommendations for change, including what qualities to seek in a new chief.

The consultant’s report cited ongoing “challenges related to communication and labor-management relations” and “an environment of mistrust and low morale” due to a lack of leadership and prolonged labor negotiations.

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