A King County judge on Friday overturned a commission's decision to reinstate a Seattle police officer who was fired for dishonesty after he failed to tell internal investigators that he had punched a man who complained about being tazed.
A King County judge on Friday overturned a commission’s decision to reinstate a Seattle police officer who was fired for dishonesty after he failed to tell internal investigators he had punched a man who complained about being Tasered.
The decision overturns a Public Safety Civil Service Commission ruling to reinstate Officer Eric Werner, who was the first officer fired under a department policy that presumes officers will be terminated if they are dishonest.
In a three-page written ruling, Superior Court Judge Paris Kallas sent the case back to the three-member commission, which had unanimously concluded in January that Werner had acted dishonestly but voted 2-1 that termination was too harsh.
Two of the three commissioners had found the Seattle Police Department doesn’t apply its dishonesty rule in an evenhanded way, noting that in past cases where honesty was an issue, officers received either no suspension or only temporary suspension. They also found no other employee has been fired for dishonesty.
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Kallas found the commission erred when it ruled Werner’s firing was disproportionately harsh when compared with discipline handed down to other officers. None of those cases, the judge noted, involved a sustained department finding of dishonesty, let alone a finding of dishonesty regarding the use of force.
“There is neither any evidence that other officers who either engaged in the same behavior or who were disciplined for dishonesty were treated differently,” Kallas wrote.
She directed the commission to reconsider the case to determine whether Werner’s termination was appropriate where there is “no evidence of lack of even-handedness in the department’s disciplinary history.”
Werner’s attorney, Alex Higgins, said an appeal of the ruling is likely.
“We find the decision very troubling, in that the judge seems to be saying that the department, not the commission, gets to decide what behavior comprises dishonesty,” Higgins said. “It undermines comparable discipline.”
Werner, 32, who joined the department in 2000 and was considered a good officer, was fired for failing to tell Seattle police internal investigators in 2007 that he had punched an agitated man who complained about being Tasered.
Werner maintained he had forgotten about the punch until he applied for a job with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office in May 2008, and then disclosed it as part of a hiring process that included polygraph examinations.
The Sheriff’s Office didn’t hire Werner and notified Seattle police of his disclosure. Interim Seattle Police Chief John Diaz fired Werner in May 2009.
The termination was appealed to the three-member commission, which ruled termination was too harsh. The commission determined a 30-day suspension without pay was the appropriate punishment.
The third commission member wrote in his partial dissent that the previous disciplinary actions cited by the majority did not involve an actual department finding of dishonesty, only that the issue of dishonesty was an element of another offense that was charged.
The third commissioner said the commission’s ruling usurped Diaz’s authority to fire Werner.
Contacted Friday, Diaz said of Kallas’ decision: “From my perspective, it was very good news.”
Werner’s termination remained in effect while Kallas considered the case.
Werner’s case has emerged as a key test of the department’s honesty policy, which presumes officers will be fired for dishonesty in their official duties and was a cornerstone of rules adopted in 2008 to address community concerns about police accountability.
This story includes information from Seattle Times archives.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org