Arlington officer fired for destroying evidence against him

ARLINGTON — The city of Arlington fired a police officer in May over allegations that he was dishonest and that he destroyed evidence against him in an internal investigation, public records show. The city said new information recently surfaced about the officer’s conduct in 2010.

That prompted a new investigation that led to termination. Prosecutors also created a record noting that the officer’s credibility could become a problem if he ever had to testify in court.

The former officer, Jason Rhodes, 44, said he was unfairly targeted for scrutiny.

The union chose not to appeal the firing. The union president Tuesday declined to comment, saying the recent investigation speaks for itself.

Two internal investigations, from 2010 and 2016, involved the same minor crash from July 2010. Rhodes backed his patrol car into a cable box, and later received a letter of reprimand.

In February 2016, Rhodes admitted to another officer that he had destroyed pictures from the 2010 investigation before it was closed. He also reportedly said he had omitted the pictures from his report and submitted his own photographs instead.

Mayor Barb Tolbert wrote in the termination letter to Rhodes that she was “very troubled that you destroyed evidence of your accident for the stated purpose of avoiding the consequences.”

It was doubly problematic, the mayor said, because of Rhodes’ history of four other on-duty crashes, between 2001 and 2015. The Daily Herald obtained Tolbert’s letter and other related documents through a public records request filed Monday.

In an interview, Rhodes said he did not consider the pictures to be evidence because he felt they portrayed damage to the patrol car that he didn’t cause. He thought his colleagues knew he threw the pictures away in 2010, he said. Rhodes alleges that the 2016 investigation was concluded too hastily.

“Never in my life, I would never throw away evidence,” he said. “It jeopardizes a case.”

According to Rhodes’ own writings, he admitted to the July 31, 2010, crash about a week later, when another officer asked about the damage.

The delay in reporting limited the amount of information that investigators could gather, Police Chief Jon Ventura said in an interview Tuesday.

“Time was lost, therefore evidence was lost,” Ventura said.

The chief noted that the 2016 investigation was not about the crash itself but the behavior that followed. The destruction of evidence is something that should never happen, he said.

Electronic security measures have been added that are designed to make it impossible for an officer to make changes to a colleague’s reports without supervisor approval, he said.

Destroying public records can be a felony under state law. Rhodes’ conduct from 2010 never was the subject of a criminal case, however. His statements on what happened were made during internal investigations.

Under case law guiding employee rights, the “confession cannot be used against him in a subsequent criminal proceeding,” Ventura said. “Without said admission, it would be difficult to prevail in a criminal proceeding and hence the investigation was not filed for criminal prosecution.”

Rhodes has done good police work in the past, but the termination was necessary to “maintain transparency and community trust,” Ventura said.

“It doesn’t matter how good we used to be,” he said. “It matters how good we are going forward. This decision was the only decision to be made.”

Rhodes worked for the city for 15 years, most recently as a detective. As part of his termination, he was paid $10,152 for unused vacation and holiday time. His salary was $84,970.

A finding of dishonesty can end an officer’s career. If a prosecutor determines that an officer’s honesty could become an issue in court, the officer is issued a “potential impeachment” notice, also known as a Brady letter. The Brady letter is provided to defense attorneys before any trial in which the officer may be called as a witness.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe issued such a letter for Rhodes in June, public records show. Roe found that a reasonable judge or juror could conclude that Rhodes was dishonest and destroyed evidence “to avoid getting in trouble.”

Rhodes “should not have removed and destroyed (the pictures), and freely admits that,” Roe wrote.

Rhodes said he disagrees with Roe’s findings.

“I was able to prove with witness testimony that I didn’t cause the damage,” Rhodes said. “I made a mistake and I will admit the mistake. Those photos were not of damage I did.”

The mayor in her termination letter outlined Rhodes’ history of multiple collisions in patrol cars. City records show that in 2002 he was accused of failing to yield, causing $5,300 in damage to his patrol car and totalling a civilian’s vehicle. He received a three-day suspension without pay, though some of the time was put on hold so long as he didn’t crash again.

In an interview, Rhodes said he had never been suspended for a collision. He denied having a pattern of driving problems, as alleged by the city.

Rhodes believes others in the department have similar histories and weren’t subject to the same scrutiny. He said he was targeted because of his choice of a girlfriend and due to a previous problem with gambling. He has accused other officers, including union leaders, of deception.

“I just feel like they pulled the rug out underneath me and I don’t deserve it,” he said.

He hopes to get hired as an officer somewhere else. For now, he has a job outside of law enforcement.

His certification to work as a police officer in Washington is under review by the state Criminal Justice Training Commission.

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

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