Colville City Council Considers Whether Police Chief Should be Under Civil Service

In Washington, the City of Colville debated whether to remove the police chief position out from under the civil service commission.   Under Washington law, a police chief that is  civil service is no longer an “at will” employee, and can only be removed from his or her position “for cause” and only after a written accusation.   The police chief is then entitled to a hearing in front of the civil service commission to determine if he or she should be removed.   Without this protection, a police chief is at the mercy of the mayor and city council.  One obvious reason why a police chief would want to be protected by civil service rules is that he does not want to be retaliated against for arresting someone who is friends with the mayor or city council.  According to the Statesman-Examiner (see article),  local resident William Emily spoke up at the city council meeting and shared his experience.  He explained that he once worked as the town marshal for Northport, Washington, and explained that during that time he was approached by individual council members and told that there were certain citizens that were not to be bothered and that there were certain laws that were not to be enforced.   I guess the implication is that if a cop’s employment is at the mercy of elected officials, then politics will creep in and taint the principle of equal application of the law.    I think that this is a fair point.  When I worked as a prosecutor, I sometimes worried about police favoritism.  Probably everyone does in smaller towns.

In Colville, the city council voted to keep the position under civil service.   The Statesman Examiner reports council members Eric Ohrtman, Doug Kyle, and Ed Gray voted to remove the position from civil service, but that they were out-voted by Lou Janke, Betty White, Marilyn Haney and Nancy Foll.

Although William Emily made a good point, there are also a lot of city officials who want to make it easier to get rid of police chiefs they have problems with.  In Ferry County,  City of Republic Mayor Elbert Koontz attempted to fire his police chief, and the decision was overturned by the civil service commission.  See story.  In that case, the civil service commission ruled that the Mayor should have taken steps of progressive discipline rather than an abrupt firing.  Any lawyer who represents municipalities will tell the local government to try to build a record of having tried to correct the employee deficiency with written reprimands or short suspensions.   However, it is only human nature to try to avoid these steps and to simply hope that an informal “talking to” will suffice.  Often government employers feel awkward about disciplining an employee then continuing to work with him or her the next day.  These personnel issues in small town governments are always hard.

Another part of the civil service rules is that the commission makes recommendations for hiring.  The rules can be complex.  Earlier this year, Ferry County Sheriff Pete Warner was sued along with Ferry County for allegedly violating the hiring rules in a suit filed in Federal Court.  See story. The jury found the county liable for about $350,000.00.  The suit alleged that Pete Warner engaged in discrimination too.

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Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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