The Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed a felony drug case after an investigation found a former Fife police officer gave false information in the incident report. Other cases the officer worked on also might be affected in the future.
The city terminated Jeff McNaughton, 47, three months ago after an outside investigation uncovered discrepancies in his report on a drug arrest in March.
In a termination letter to the officer, Interim City Manager Subir Mukerjee stated that McNaughton “fell far short of meeting (his) professional and ethical obligations.”
“Dishonesty in a police report is a significant breach of public trust and clearly compromises your integrity for any future police work,” Mukerjee wrote. “The Investigating Officer sustained that your integrity is clearly compromised.”
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The Fife Police Guild filed a grievance on McNaughton’s behalf following his termination, Mukerjee said, but the appeal was eventually withdrawn.
During the investigation conducted by Lakewood police, McNaughton told investigators that he was mistaken about the details of the arrest, and that he needed to do a better job writing incident reports. But he said he was not dishonest.
“I was not being untruthful,” McNaughton said, according to documents obtained by The News Tribune.
A News Tribune reporter called several numbers listed in public records for McNaughton but could not reach him for comment.
Investigative records give the following account:
McNaughton stated in a March 18, 2014, police report that he observed a vehicle with a defective windshield turn in to a hotel parking lot. He stated that he initiated a traffic stop involving a female driver, who was nervous and fidgety, and a male passenger.
McNaughton arrested the woman for not having a valid driver’s license and for refusing to provide information to the officer.
McNaughton learned the woman had a felony warrant and contacted a state Department of Corrections officer. A search of the woman’s vehicle and purse recovered drug paraphernalia and plastic baggies containing a white substance believed to be methamphetamine. The woman was then taken to Fife Jail.
Five months after the arrest, video evidence provided to county prosecutors by the woman’s attorney contradicted McNaughton’s report.
Stephen Penner, chief of the criminal division for Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office, told Fife police officials that video surveillance from the hotel showed the vehicle parked in the lot for at least 90 minutes before McNaughton arrived.
The investigation confirmed that McNaughton’s report contradicted the video.
“It does not appear from the video that Officer McNaughton was conducting a traffic stop but was more than likely contacting an occupied vehicle,” according to an internal memo to a Fife police commander.
Police also noted that some of the information in McNaughton’s statement issued during the investigation contradicted his initial report.
The false information led prosecutors to dismiss the felony drug case from the March 18 incident.
McNaughton issued a statement during the investigation acknowledging that his report was in error. He stressed that he would use it as a learning experience should the city maintain his employment.
“I understand that my report writing technique was poor in this instance,” he wrote, “and that I will need to be more precise and careful in the way that I write my reports in the future in order to make sure that nothing like this happens again.”
Penner told The News Tribune this week that McNaughton’s termination forces prosecutors to individually scrutinize any cases the officer investigated.
“It gives us pause whether that’s a prosecution we can proceed on,” he said.
Prosecutors don’t know how many other cases could be reviewed, but one child abuse case was affected. McNaughton was one of the responding officers on that police call.
Penner said prosecutors have a constitutional obligation to inform the defense when the credibility of a witness is called into question.
“When a police officer witness has information in his personal history that calls into question his integrity, then that causes us to evaluate the case and make a decision whether that is a witness we want to use in our prosecution,” Penner said.
McNaughton was hired as a full-time Fife patrol officer in 2010. He had worked as a reserve officer for the city since 1999.
His personnel file shows no indication of previous policy violations but does include a memo referencing several complaints against him in 2001 regarding “contacts with the general public.”
Mukerjee told The News Tribune that the city won’t tolerate dishonesty. The public needs to be able to trust police officers, he said.
“Integrity and trust are cornerstones of the Police Department,” he said. “We take them very seriously.”