Brawling with a badge

Misbehaving deputies have got Sheriff Dave Reichert handing out a string of dismissals.

AS BAR FIGHTS GO, King County Sheriff's Deputy Sherry Valentine seemed to be doing her job—slugging a man, ripping off his shirt, and kicking someone else as she tried to end the brawl.

One problem: She was off duty and one of the combatants.

The Kirkland bar fight was one of two involving an off-duty King County Sheriff's officer during a five month period last year. But unlike the officer in the other bar fight, Valentine lost her job.

In addition to raising questions over dismissal practices in the sheriff's office, Valentine's firing has become one of an unusual string of line-officer firings recently handed down by Sheriff Dave Reichert, leaving an uneasiness among some members of the 1,000-person department. In the past six months, three deputies got their walking papers for alleged criminal violations or attacking civilians.

One of the dismissed officers, John Vanderwalker, was fired for the alleged, and memorable, pepper-spraying of two women videotaping WTO riot scenes on Capitol Hill. Although he is now being sued by the women, Vanderwalker is quietly appealing his misconduct dismissal with the support of other deputies and the King County Police Officers Guild.

Reichert says that in addition to the pepper-spray allegations, Vanderwalker was fired for kicking a kneeling woman during WTO and lying during the internal investigation.

This is Vanderwalker's second dismissal—the first came in 1991 for unlawful home entry while attempting to make an arrest. A state commission reversed that firing, finding Vanderwalker failed to get a fair hearing. The police guild is making a similar claim in this case. Guild President Steve Eggert has filed a grievance, saying Vanderwalker "was singled out and targeted for scrutiny in a disparate manner."

Sheriff's spokesperson John Urquhart responds, "We had no other complaints against our deputies. We uncovered no similar actions during our own after-action review, and we had no deputies come forward with any similar claims."

THERE'S ALSO rank-and-file support for Valentine, though Reichert has taken a hard line on her dismissal.

According to Kyle Aiken of the sheriff's legal unit, Valentine was axed for an incident last year at the Time Out Tavern in Kirkland. She was out with friends and family on a social evening June 6. A fist fight broke out as the group was leaving the pub. Seeing her friend and a family member in a fight, Valentine attempted to go to them, Aiken says. Restrained by the bartender, Valentine struck him in the shoulder.

"She kicked someone else and tore the shirt off the bartender," says Aiken. "In the bartender's opinion, Valentine and the other members of her group were intoxicated. During the internal investigation, Valentine lied, saying she had left as soon as the fight broke out."

Valentine could not be reached for comment. And though Valentine denied involvement, Urquhart says, "What occurred was caught on a surveillance videotape, unbeknownst to her." The internal investigation resulted in three findings against Valentine, including dishonesty.

That incident was not publicly reported. But a similar incident later made headlines when county Maj. Frank Kinney was involved in a bar fight in Grays Harbor County. The November 1999 brawl included civilians and two other law enforcement officers, who were attending a police and sheriffs convention in Ocean Shores.

Kinney, like Valentine, was not the cause of the fight. The department says he was candid about his role and was briefly suspended.

The differences in their cases? "Deputies who tarnish the badge by their conduct, especially by dishonesty, should expect to be disciplined or even fired," says Reichert. "Integrity is nonnegotiable."

The third fired deputy, Carlos Ramos, was dismissed recently for alleged domestic violence at his Lake Forest Park home, involving a teenage family member. He has pleaded not guilty to fourth-degree assault and faces trial this month.

DEPARTMENT CRITICS see an inconsistency in some of Reichert's disciplinary actions. They point to Deputy Cam Lefler's unjustified shooting of a motorcyclist, resulting in a $250,000 civil damage award last year and a recommended 15-day suspension for the officer, which Reichert overturned. By that logic, says a deputy, Vanderwalker, for one, might still be employed had he shot instead of pepper-sprayed his victims.

Critics also rap the department's policy of delaying internal investigations if there is also a criminal probe underway. That was the case with Marcus Williams, a county sergeant who is also police chief of Newcastle. He was put on paid leave in March after an Oregon woman alleged Williams had made a phone threat against her. The two had met in an Internet chat room. The woman claimed she wanted to break off the subsequent relationship, but Williams did not.

Williams spent seven months at home on full pay while law enforcement officials in two states probed his alleged criminal conduct. Prosecutor Norm Maleng has since opted not to prosecute for lack of evidence. The department cleared Williams for a return to duty this month.

Although paying an officer not to work for seven months is a costly policy for the cash-strapped department, Urquhart insists there's no way around it unless laws are changed.

Deputies say the recent job disputes are sure to cause the department more legal headaches. "The King County Police Officers Guild," says one department staffer, "has not lost a case to the county in 12 years."

Reichert says so be it. "At the end of the day," he observes, "I still make the final decision about who works for the sheriff's office and who doesn't."

 
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