Arbitrary justice

Whose fault is it that Deputy Sheriff John Vanderwalker is back at work?

SOMETIMES GETTING caught on tape isn't enough. Despite footage seen round the world showing King County sheriff's deputy John Vanderwalker kicking a World Trade Organization protester and pepper-spraying two other female demonstrators in 1999, an arbitrator ruled that he should not have been fired for his actions. Sheriff Dave Reichert says veteran arbiter Michael de Grasse didn't heed evidence that Vanderwalker lied and shouldn't have allowed the deputy to return to his duties. The public fury over the decision led to a flood of outraged calls to the sheriff's office. In fact, Reichert is now seeking an unprecedented appeal of the decision even though it was reached by binding arbitration; he and the county pointedly claim de Grasse's "refusal" to concede Vanderwalker's dishonesty was "willful and unreasoning."

But both public and confidential documents obtained by Seattle Weekly show that the sheriff department's own investigation played a major role in losing that and another recent arbitration case. Sheriff's office internal investigators, the arbiters say, failed to present necessary witnesses or physical evidence, neglected exculpatory information, and drummed up scenarios that were disproved by videotape.

Vanderwalker, fired last year, was cleared of the most important internal charge, lying, when he said he couldn't recall details of kicking the WTO protester. Vanderwalker was also disciplined for his WTO pepper-spraying of two women in a car on Capitol Hill.

In his May 21 decision, de Grasse found after a five-day hearing that the department, whose case was presented by King County prosecutors, offered up unconvincing arguments as well as "the subjective impressions of investigators," as his report says. He returned Vanderwalker, a 20-year veteran, to his job with 14 months back pay.

Reichert's spokesman, John Urquhart, this week said, "We think we presented excellent cases. We had video in both cases. I don't know what other witnesses [the arbiters] would want."

According to a partial transcript of Vanderwalker's hearing, Reichert said he originally planned to severely discipline Vanderwalker for the WTO offenses but ended up firing him because he lied about the kicking incident. "We believe that Vanderwalker was deceptive during our investigation," says Urquhart. "De Grasse says that was a subjective finding. And it's probably going to be subjective in such cases. But it's certainly backed up by the videotape.

"Vanderwalker not only didn't remember, he said he didn't kick the woman," Urquhart adds. "How could you not recall that situation when it's obvious on the video? It looks like a kick, not an 'unfortunate collision,'" as a union official called it.

De Grasse did rule that the sheriff had just cause to discipline Vanderwalker for "some excessive force" for the kick. But de Grasse decided Reichert's department couldn't prove that Vanderwalker lied. He concluded there was "no" evidence presented that Vanderwalker "actually recalled the kicking incident," when he said he didn't. The deputy, who voluntarily turned himself in after a probe was launched, showed no intent to mislead or deceive based on the county's presentation, de Grasse says. He said the county provided no testimony from the victim or witnesses, relying on commercial TV video to portray the incident. For the arbiter, that left the "combat situation" open to interpretation.

Though the county has paid $100,000 to the two women who were pepper-sprayed in the other incident, de Grasse called Vanderwalker's actions against them reasonable. The women "had previously been ordered to leave the area," and "their behavior appeared to be that of spotting or directing fire [from debris-tossing demonstrators]."

The department's not buying it. "The arbitrator was in error," says Urquhart. "He was arbitrary and capricious. And that's why we're appealing."

THE CASE IS THE second sheriff's disciplinary action to be overturned recently. Detective Sherry Valentine, an 11-year vet fired for lying about her involvement in a Kirkland bar brawl in 1999, won her arbitration in a May 1 ruling that also questioned the sheriff's investigation. Arbitrator Richard Croll used the words "mistaken conjectures," "bias," and "inaccuracies" to describe a detective's investigation. He reinstated Valentine with back pay.

The investigating detective, for example, reported Valentine was shown in the videotape kicking a bartender in the groin, but Croll saw "no kick by [Valentine] or anyone else." The detective claimed the tape showed "many persons" spilling out of the Time Out Tavern during the fight; Croll, reviewing the tape, saw only one person and two "lovers" necking. A "fight that moved into the doorway" was "no fight that moved anywhere," he said.

Croll also found that neither Reichert nor "anyone in the administration reviewed the tape," even after fairness and credibility issues were raised (the detective blamed his misperceptions on an inferior department TV set). According to the documents, Reichert contradicted himself during testimony, helping lead to a dismissal of charges.

The sheriff, who fired Valentine last April for lying about her actions, testified that he wouldn't have let her go had he known she couldn't recall events due to a an alcoholic blackout (she completed detox and drug rehab programs before she was fired). But Croll said, "It appears he had that [blackout] information, but for some reason it was not a part of [Reichert's] decision-making process."

Some officers and union officials argue hearing records show that Vanderwalker, in particular, has been wrongly portrayed in newspaper and TV reports that have focused on the sheriff's criticisms rather than the department's shortcomings. "Let's just hope," says a middle-rank officer, "our external investigations are nothing like the internal ones."

Others claim that Reichert, facing re-election, is making politicized decisions. In his ruling, arbiter Croll implied that the department lacks uniformity in its discipline. After reviewing 22 dishonesty complaints, he found "a considerable disparity in the nature of the charges and the handling of them."

According to separate documents, another female deputy who had lied about drinking a half-glass of beer on duty (she was ratted on by a fellow officer for whom she had bought lunch that day) wasn't fired. She confessed, like Valentine, after the department undertook an extensive probe that included gaining copies of her lunch tab and interviewing servers.

Reichert says lying is the cardinal sin in internal probes. Apparently that's why a sergeant in another internal case was merely disciplined and demoted, even though his violations were considerably more than a bar brawl: He had sex with a married woman in a government building; gave her sheriff's supplies, access codes to county buildings, and keys to county police cars; and ran up an extensive county cell phone bill. However, the department says, he didn't lie about it.

Valentine, like Vanderwalker, is back at work. The department's appeal in Vanderwalker's case awaits a county judge's ruling.

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