Arbitrator orders reversal of firing of prison officers

MONROE — An arbitrator has ordered the state Department of Corrections to reverse the firings of three Monroe Correctional Complex officers and the demotion of one sergeant after the 2011 murder of officer Jayme Biendl.

The department must offer the officers their former jobs back, officials said Tuesday. The individual employees then will decide if they want to return. They will receive back pay either way.

The ruling is final and binding, a union spokeswoman said.

Biendl was slain at her post in the prison chapel. At the time, prison officials accused several officers of misconduct, dereliction of duty and of purposely misleading investigators after the death. The state also accused the officers of dishonesty.

Teamsters Local 117 on Tuesday called for “sweeping reform” at the prison and accused the department of pointing fingers at people instead of addressing the underlying issues.

“From the very beginning, we thought it was ridiculous that the department was scapegoating line staff,” Teamsters Secretary-Treasurer Tracey Thompson said Tuesday.

State corrections officials on Tuesday were reviewing the ruling and talking about what happens next, department spokesman Chad Lewis said in a prepared statement.

Lewis acknowledged that complacency had been a problem at Monroe but said that was no excuse.

“We took disciplinary action because of the serious nature of the staff members’ actions — including falsifying documents and lying to police investigators — which does not accurately represent the professionalism of our staff,” he said. “We can only be an effective agency if we hold ourselves accountable for our actions, which we did in this case.”

In the days after the killing, the union blamed the department’s top brass. Privately, though, people who were working at the prison that night said Biendl’s colleagues were partially responsible.

People who could have checked on Biendl weren’t where they were supposed to be, officers told The Herald. Those statements were repeated during the aggravated murder trial of the inmate who took her life.

Michael Cavanaugh, the arbitrator, found that safety failures were widespread at the prison, and that it was unfair to blame individual employees for an institutional problem, according to the 54-page ruling released Tuesday.

The arbitrator was less convinced that officers had been dishonest about what happened that night. He said some of the discrepancies in their statements could be attributed to sloppiness and inattention to detail, as well as poor job performance and bad supervisory practices. The complacency caused officers to overlook the constant potential for violence posed by inmates, the arbitrator wrote.

One of the officers was not at his post outside the chapel the night Biendl was strangled, documents showed. Detectives found that if the officer had been where he was supposed to be, inmate Byron Scherf may not have had the opportunity to attack.

Scherf, a convicted rapist already serving a life sentence, in May was sentenced to death for the killing. He had admitted to looking for the opportunity to ambush Biendl, knowing the other officer likely wouldn’t be outside. Scherf went outside the chapel to look for the officer before closing the outer gate and returning to kill Biendl. Scherf mentioned the empty post in a letter he sent to prison officials a few months later.

That officer was not properly supervised and rules weren’t consistenly enforced about remaining at his post, the arbitrator wrote. In addition, he and the other officers had multiple supervisors who held them to different standards. There was not an adquate history of discipline to support termination, the ruling states.

While the arbitrator didn’t recommend even a letter of reprimand for the officer, he did note that the man has failed to acknowledge his role in what happened that night, and has demonstrated “no humility and insufficient acceptance of personal responsibility.”

However, the report also notes: “While the consequences of that complacency are painfully clear in retrospect, the fact that it was widespread before the murder cautions strongly against singling out one complacent front-line officer for substantially more significant discipline than others when something goes wrong, as it did here.”

The arbitrator found that the sergeant who was demoted likely was overwhelmed with his duties and was too busy with paperwork to keep up on discipline for his wandering officer. The team of officers he oversaw also had internal conflicts, and he was wary of micromanaging them, the report says.

The sergeant acknowledged that lack of documentation made it difficult to prove he’d told the officer to stay at his post.

The union and the state picked a neutral arbitrator after grievance talks fell through, Thompson said. The process for dispute was guided by their contract.

It wasn’t immediately clear whether the officers will return to work at the prison, she said.

“There’s a huge stigma assumed to having been terminated” after the killing, she said. “I don’t know what kind of personal decisions these folks will make.”

The officer who wasn’t at his post that night since has changed his name, the ruling said.

The Anacortes-based arbitrator reviewed an estimated 1,780 pages of documents, in addition to six notebooks of exhibits, before filing his decision this week.

After Biendl’s killing, investigations were conducted by both the state Department of Labor &Industries and the National Institute of Corrections, as well as an internal review. Numerous safety problems were found and changes were made, including more training, adding security advisory committees, shift changes to increase staffing at peak prisoner movement times, and tighter screening of how inmates are classified and assigned jobs.

Scherf had been classified as a medium-custody inmate despite notes in his file describing him as cunning, predatory and dangerous. The file said he posed a serious risk to female employees due to his history of attacks on women.

Why Scherf was classified as medium-security, allowing him to work in the chapel as a volunteer, is a question that’s never been answered.

After the killing, the overall inmate population at the Washington State Reformatory also was reduced, and the department issued body alarms to officers assigned there.

The pilot program for the alarms is going well, Lewis said Tuesday. The department would need additional funding from the Legislature to expand it, he said.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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