Is it too hard to fire a problem cop?

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by LINDA BYRON / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @LByronK5

KING5.com

Posted on December 20, 2011 at 12:00 AM

Updated Wednesday, Oct 30 at 9:12 AM

SEATTLE -- Reports of lax discipline in the King County Sheriff’s Office made headlines in 2005, with the Seattle PI series “Conduct Unbecoming.” That prompted the creation of a blue ribbon panel which identified problems and made recommendations for major reforms. These included improved supervision at all levels, increased training for investigating complaints and outside independent oversight. When the report was released in 2006, Sheriff Sue Rahr embraced the changes. 

“They [the panel] obviously found places that we can improve and I agree with them,” Rahr said.

But earlier this year, the KING 5 Investigators exposed two cases that raised questions about whether the King County Sheriff’s Office is still too slow to identify problem deputies, investigate allegations of misconduct and take action.
Take the case of Deputy Matt Paul. In 2009, he slammed an innocent man into a wall, leaving him brain damaged. A year later, he tackled a jaywalker to the ground.
It was the KING 5 Investigators who reviewed his file and found Paul using force and generating complaints at a much higher rate than most deputies. In an interview last May, the Sheriff conceded that she should have watched Paul closer.
“And frankly, it’s a little embarrassing that you asked the right questions,” said the Sheriff.
Then there’s Deputy Kevin Savage. He was fired after the KING 5 Investigators reported that he’d been the target of 22 internal investigations. Savage also had 30 findings of misconduct over two years.  
When asked if she’d kept her 2006 promise for improved accountability, Rahr responded, “Yes...what you’re talking about are two cases that are clearly anomalies to the behavior of my deputies.”
The sheriff said any discipline she imposed can be challenged under the contract between her office and the King County Police Officers’ Guild. Asked whether the Guild is too strong or makes it too hard for her to do the right thing, Rahr said “No, they don’t. They hold me to a very high standard.”
The Sheriff said to impose discipline, she has to meet a just cause checklist established through collective bargaining which includes the following questions:
  • Was the deputy warned?
  • Is the policy reasonable?
  • Was there a thorough and fair investigation?
  • Is there proof of wrongdoing?
  • Was there equal treatment across the board for the same misconduct?
  • Is the penalty appropriate?
Rahr told KING 5 that checklist explains why a deputy like Matt Paul is put on a Performance Improvement Plan instead of receiving harsher punishment.
And she said that’s why Deputy Savage wasn’t fired sooner.
“This wasn’t about tolerance for bad behavior. This is about developing a case that we can prove and that will be upheld,” she said.
The sheriff is in for a fight.  Last week, the King County Police Officers’ Guild voted to back Savage in appealing his termination. To put that into perspective, in the last five years, the Sheriff fired 19 deputies. Six of them appealed and two of those deputies were reinstated to their jobs.
The sheriff denies it’s too hard to fire a cop. 
“No, it’s not too hard,” she said. “We ask police officers to risk their lives every day protecting the community.”
The King County Police Officers’ Guild did not respond to numerous interview requests. As for the independent Office of Law Enforcement Oversight that was recommended by the King County Sheriff’s Blue Ribbon Panel in 2006, it just got funded in September. The new director of that office, Charles Gaither, would not go on camera to explain how he will investigate complaints. He said he is still coming up to speed.

 

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