Lake Stevens officer claims city defamed him

LAKE STEVENS — A Lake Stevens police officer who was at the center of a civil rights lawsuit that cost the city $100,000 filed a claim Monday alleging city officials mishandled the lawsuit and tarnished his reputation.

Steve Warbis and his wife claim that city officials engaged in misconduct and failed to adequately defend him against unfounded allegations raised in the civil lawsuit.

They also allege that the city “incompetently or deliberately provided the media with glaringly inaccurate and false information regarding incidents involving Officer Warbis despite internal investigations that proved certain public statements and legal claims were in fact false,” according to the claim.

“The cumulative result of the City’s errors is that Warbis has been continually portrayed as a rogue and hot-headed cop, something that is completely contrary to the truth and case facts,” according to the claim.

City Administrator Jan Berg on Monday said the city “disputes these allegations and will vigorously defend itself.”

“The city of Lake Stevens does not ignore allegations received of police inappropriate conduct both on- or off-duty and takes such matters very seriously,” she said. “The city also defends appropriate action taken by its employees in the course of duty.”

Warbis says he has been prohibited from making any comments to the media to defend his reputation. He alleges that the city engaged in defamation, which has hurt his entire family, including his children.

The claim does not spell out how much money the police officer is seeking, however, it says “a seven-figure-damages judgement is not unreasonable.”

A claim generally is the first step in filing a civil lawsuit.

Warbis and his wife are represented by Lake Stevens lawyer Gus Lindsey III.

“This really is about holding the city’s administration accountable for the damages and harm to my client’s reputation,” Lindsey said Monday. “This is about letting people know the truth.”

In December 2012, the city paid $100,000 to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit that accused Warbis and fellow officer James Wellington of misconduct.

Brandon Fenter alleged that in June 2011, Warbis and Wellington illegally arrested him at his home. He said he had been driving in Marysville the night before when he was waved down by an off-duty Warbis. The two got into a heated argument.

Warbis and Wellington went to Fenter’s home the next day.

Warbis reportedly asked Fenter, “Remember me, (expletive)?”

Fenter was jailed. Reckless driving charges later were dropped.

The Lake Stevens Police Department’s internal investigation of the 2011 incident determined that Warbis did not violate any criminal or civil laws.

Warbis alleges that the city rushed to “settle a meritless claim,” and failed to properly handle his legal defense. Warbis also alleges that the city did not attempt to correct the record, which he asserts contained inaccurate and defamatory allegations against him.

The city, Lindsey said, had the legal duty to inform Warbis that the lawsuit was settled. The family learned of the pay-out when “they were swarmed by local media,” Lindsey said.

Warbis also alleges in the claim that the city misled the public about an off-duty incident that happened in May 2012 in Everett.

A bystander called Everett police after Warbis and another man got into a shoving match inside a bar. Warbis was Tasered in the forehead during the incident. The two men reportedly were arguing over a classic car parked outside. The men and witnesses disputed who started the fight, according to the lengthy Everett police report obtained by The Herald.

No one was arrested. Everett police officers said there was no clear indication who was the primary aggressor. Everett city prosecutors later reviewed the police reports and witness statements. They declined to file charges against anyone.

Warbis was found to have violated the Lake Stevens Police Department’s code of ethics. He also failed to promote a positive image as a police officer when he got into the brawl, according to a statement released by Lake Stevens officials.

At one point, the city sent him to training to work on his communication skills.

Warbis says he provided a number of documents to correct “inaccurate and false assumptions” but the city “misrepresented” the information.

The officer claims he can’t advance in the police department because of the city’s negligence in handling the cases involving him. He also alleges the city’s actions impair his ability to engage with fellow officers and the public “who routinely question his integrity and ability as a police officer.”

The Lake Stevens Police Department has been plagued with problems since the former police chief left under a cloud in November 2012, followed by a string of high-profile complaints about officer misconduct.

The city has made a number of changes, including the creation of a new Division of Professional Standards.

Last month, the city was hit with another lawsuit from within the police department. Sgt. Julie Jamison alleges that the department retaliated against her after she complained of sexual harassment. The city is fighting the claim. A few weeks later, the city was served with another civil rights lawsuit. A Lake Stevens woman alleges that four officers, including Warbis, illegally searched her property.

The department remains without a permanent police chief. The city is in the process of hiring a new commander as well.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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