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Seattle ordered to pay more than $600K to officer ruled wrongfully terminated

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell condemned the decision, saying the policy violations were clear and the discipline commensurate with the seriousness of the incident


Photo/Facebook via Seattle PD

By Mike Carter
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — A Seattle police officer fired after she and a colleague fired dozens of rounds at a stolen car fleeing a crowded neighborhood was wrongly terminated, an arbitrator has ruled, underscoring ongoing accountability issues dogging the department and possibly undermining efforts to finally end federal oversight.

The arbitrator, an attorney in Wisconsin, didn’t order Officer Tabitha Sexton reinstated to her job as a Seattle Police Department patrol officer, saying she’s likely moved on from her 2017 firing. But the arbitrator did order the city to pay back wages that, based on her prior salary, will exceed $600,000.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell condemned the decision, saying the policy violations were clear and the discipline commensurate with the seriousness of the incident.

“The Chief of Police’s decision to dismiss should be upheld. Effective public safety requires real accountability, and, as such, we are calling for this decision to be appealed,” Harrell said in a statement Thursday.

The arbitrator concluded Sexton and a second officer, Kenneth Martin , both violated policies relating to de-escalation and use of force, which he found to be confusing and ambiguous.

However, he upheld the termination of Martin, who fired more than 20 rounds from his high-powered patrol rifle at the fleeing car as it careened down a narrow alley in the Eastlake neighborhood. Sexton fired at least 11 rounds from her service sidearm at the car, according to the ruling.

The passenger and driver were both wounded and were arrested at another location. After an internal investigation, then-interim police Chief Carmen Best fired both officers for using excessive force and violating the department’s de-escalation policies.

“It’s our central mission to keep the public safe,” Best wrote at the time. “Your actions and decisions did the opposite: they created a deadly force situation that unnecessarily threatened public safety.”

The arbitrator, Stanley H. Michelstetter, in a 40-page ruling said Martin showed poor judgment and attempted to minimize his actions as a young officer but that the chief was wrong to fire Sexton, a veteran officer whose motives and judgment were in line with SPD policies, which themselves are problematic. At most, Sexton should have been suspended without pay for 60 days, Michelstetter concluded.

The ruling, handed down last week, comes at a difficult and sensitive time for the city, which is attempting to persuade a federal judge to release it from the last vestiges of nearly a dozen years of court oversight stemming from a Department of Justice investigation that concluded in 2012 that Seattle officers routinely used excessive force.

U.S. District Judge James Robart has retained jurisdiction over the department’s reforms involving use of force and officer accountability — both the topics of the arbitration ruling, which underscores that those areas remain troublesome for the department.

In 2019, the city was on the cusp of full compliance with reforms when — in a remarkably similar ruling to Michelstetter’s — an arbitrator overturned the termination of former SPD Officer Adley Shepherd , who had been fired for punching an intoxicated and handcuffed woman in the back of his patrol car, fracturing bones in her face.

Robart cited the decision in the Shepherd arbitration, along with broader concerns over the agency rank-and-file’s resistance to reforms, as the reasons he found the department had partially fallen out of compliance with the federal oversight agreement in 2019.

At the time, Robart questioned the use of labor arbitrators whose livelihoods depend on being selected to overturn or modify discipline imposed by an experienced police chief. He questioned whether that portion of the contract between the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild complies with the Constitution and state law.

The city appealed the arbitrator’s decision to reinstate Shepherd to King County Superior Court , where a judge overturned the arbitrator and reinstated Shepherd’s termination. That decision was upheld by the Court of Appeals .

Binding arbitration in police discipline cases — often included in collectively bargained contracts — has been a controversial practice that’s garnered local and national attention after research showed arbitrators reduced or overturned officer discipline in more than half the cases they hear on appeal.

Harrell, in his statement, said the decision is a “reflection of a larger issue that impacts police accountability systems across the state.

“When arbitrators can agree with the department on violations of policy — especially serious and deadly uses of force — but discount the decision of the Police Chief on discipline, our accountability system is undermined and public trust is eroded,” he said.

This past summer, King County Executive Dow Constantine sharply criticized an arbitration decision that reinstated King County sheriff’s Detective George Alvarez , who had been fired for failing to de-escalate a confrontation that led to a fatal shooting.

SPOG’s resistance to reforms, meanwhile, has included a 2014 lawsuit filed by 123 officers who alleged the department’s restrictive use-of-force policy, which was new at the time, interfered with their ability to defend themselves and endangered their lives. Sexton was among the plaintiffs. The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed.

The city and SPOG have been negotiating a new contract since their last one expired roughly three years ago, and Robart has made it clear that he expects any new contract to address the issues of officer accountability and arbitration.

Neither SPOG nor the attorney representing Sexton and Martin responded Thursday to requests for comment.

The shooting incident occurred in the Eastlake neighborhood the night of Oct. 8, 2017 , after a neighbor called to report someone in a Subaru Impreza appeared to be smoking a glass pipe and may have been loading or unloading a gun.

Sexton and Martin were among four officers who initially responded. Body- and dash-camera video show Martin walking to the front of the car as the driver drops the hood, gets into the car and pulls away. Martin, his rifle up, moves to the side as the driver turns right into an alley, strikes a building, backs up and then speeds away.

Martin fired more than 20 rounds at the vehicle, and Sexton fired at least 11 from her handgun. The investigation showed the car was struck 27 times.

Seattle policy prohibits officers from firing into a moving vehicle except in the most dire circumstances, which the city’s civilian-run Office of Police Accountability concluded were not present.

Both officers were fired after an investigation found they had violated department policies involving deadly force and de-escalation.

SPOG opposed the terminations, arguing the officers were defending themselves and the public.

Although the driver and passenger weren’t seriously injured, disciplinary reports, video and internal-investigation findings depicted a chaotic scene that officials worried could have led to serious injury or death for the car occupants or passersby.

Among other violations, the city said Martin and the other officers failed to make a “hasty plan” suggested by policy when approaching a high-risk stop, and that Martin violated core de-escalation principles of time, distance and cover when he walked up and stood in front of the vehicle alone.

Martin had been disciplined the previous day after he initiated an improper chase involving the same driver and car.

The ruling states that “Officer [Martin] became personally motivated to be able to arrest the driver from the shift before because of his embarrassment,” an attitude the arbitrator agreed clouded his judgment and rightly raised questions about his ability to comply with SPD’s policies.

The arbitrator found that Sexton, from her vantage point, had reasonable belief the vehicle may have struck Martin and that it posed a deadly threat when she fired in the first of two volleys of gunfire. The first rounds that Martin fired also could be justified, the arbitrator said.

It was his later rounds that were not justified and warranted termination, along with his tactical mistakes.

The arbitrator acknowledged Sexton’s actions likewise violated the department’s use-of-force policies but concluded she “acted only in good faith in the city’s interest,” Michelstetter wrote. “In short, this was a case in which [Sexton] was wrong but there was room for disagreement.”


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