A civil-service board concluded in the long-running case of former Seattle police Officer Eric Werner that officers must tell the truth, especially when they use force.
Citing the need for police officers to “tell the truth,” the Seattle Public Safety Civil Commission has upheld the firing of a former Seattle officer who was dismissed in 2009 for dishonesty after he failed to tell internal investigators he had punched a man.
The commission’s formal order in the case of Eric Werner was made public Monday, although the 2-1 decision was first reached in February.
Werner’s case, which wound its way through the commission, the courts and back to the commission, emerged as a key test of the authority of Police Chief John Diaz and the Police Department’s honesty policy. That policy 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 accountability.
The commission’s order comes as the city enters into a pact with the U.S. Department of Justice to curtail excessive force by officers.
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Werner’s attorney, Alex Higgins, said Monday that his client has no plans to further appeal but has 30 days to make a final decision. Werner is now working in a job not associated with law enforcement, Higgins said.
Werner, who joined the Police 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 later 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. Diaz, as interim chief before he was permanently appointed to the job, fired Werner in May 2009.
The commission voted in 2010 to reinstate Werner. Although it unanimously concluded that Werner had acted dishonestly, it voted 2-1 that termination was too harsh and ordered a 30-day suspension without pay.
The two commissioners who voted to overturn Werner’s firing found that the Police Department had not applied its dishonesty rule in an evenhanded way and that no other employee had been fired for dishonesty. They also cited Werner’s unblemished record before being accused of dishonesty.
The City Attorney’s Office appealed Werner’s reinstatement to a King County Superior Court judge, who found the commission had erred and directed it to reconsider the case.
A three-judge panel of the state Court of Appeals unanimously upheld the lower-court ruling last year.
The case went back to the commission, which was left with the question of whether Werner’s prior record provided a sufficient reason to modify the chief’s decision.
A new commission member, Christian Haliburton, who had replaced one of the commissioners who voted to reinstate Werner, joined with commissioner Terry Carroll to uphold the firing.
In their decision, they wrote that “common sense and the law” required them to give deference to Diaz.
“Police officers are critically important to the community and their work is entitled to the highest respect from citizens,” they wrote. “Part of that foundation of trust, though, must be premised on the assumption that they will tell the truth — especially in a circumstance where the striking of a citizen is involved.”
Commissioner Joel Nark voted again to reinstate Werner, writing that a 30-day suspension with a “last chance” agreement was more appropriate.
“The point I am trying to make is that we are not a ‘rubber stamp Commission’ for the Chief of the Seattle Dept.,” Nark wrote.
Werner’s termination remained in effect throughout his various appeals.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org