Special Reports

Citizens deserve to know about their employees’ deeds

Even if you’ve paid only scant attention to the news lately you’re aware that The News Tribune is in a dispute with Tacoma City Hall over a Washington State Patrol investigation.

The issues are fairly complex, so let’s try to break it down in question-and-answer format. What’s the investigation about? It’s a follow-up to the initial criminal investigation after Police Chief David Brame shot and killed his wife, Crystal Brame, then himself 20 months ago. How is this investigation different? The first was a criminal investigation. It found nothing that warranted criminal charges against any individual, but disclosed what the patrol chief and the attorney general called a “culture of corruption” within the Tacoma Police Department. This latest investigation probed noncriminal misconduct allegations that surfaced in the first inquiry. The allegations involved 32 current or former city employees, including some police officers. What were some of the allegations? We’re not sure, because they won’t tell us. But the state attorney general cited several possibilities. Among them: that police officers knew of alleged crimes but didn’t act on them; that an assistant chief knew the chief physically threatened his wife but didn’t report it; that one officer and perhaps others might have been promoted based on inappropriate sexual activity; and that favoritism might have been involved in police disciplinary cases. When was the investigation turned over to the city? Nearly six months ago. What’s happened since? City Manager James Walton spent those months looking over 104 allegations. Walton found seven allegations were “not sustained” and 53 allegations were “unfounded,” and he “exonerated” employees of misconduct involving 32 allegations.

He “sustained” 12 findings of wrongdoing and has made a final ruling on one matter, in which a city employee apparently shared confidential medical information with his wife. Though he won’t be specific we believe Walton has notified employees in 11 other matters that he believes they violated city policy or procedure. We believe he is scheduling hearings to let them challenge his findings. What does the Tribune want released? We want specific information about the 12 cases of misconduct and the names of the parties involved. Is the city going to release it? No. Officials apparently will give us only copies of the letter telling the employee or former employee about the finding of misconduct, which might contain few specifics. They apparently intend to redact even the names of the guilty employees. Why won’t they turn over the information? They say they can’t, that collective bargaining agreements and past practices make it impossible. Are they right? We don’t think so. The Public Disclosure Act and case law, we believe, entitles citizens to know when misconduct occurs, what it was, what discipline was meted out and the name of the employee. State law overrides any agreement the city has with police unions. Any other reasons? An assistant city attorney, Jean Homan, prepared a memo for the city manager on the legal aspects of releasing the information. She notes that the law says permission for access is to be broadly interpreted and exemptions are to be narrowly construed. Then she advises the opposite and looks for reasons not to release the findings. Who besides the city manager is fighting to keep the material secret? Police unions, private lawyers hired by the city, and the lawyer for former City Manager Ray Corpuz, among others. (Nine lawyers argued against disclosure in a recent court hearing.) What’s the bottom line? We might have to sue to get the information. The city’s lawyers and the city manager have told us that’s the only way we’re going to get the material.

The bottom line for us is we think the city manager and any employees found guilty of misconduct work for the citizens. We believe citizens are entitled to know when an employee breaks the rules, specifically what happened, who the employee is and what the punishment is. That’s the only way citizens can determine if government is behaving appropriately.

The city’s bottom line appears to be: We work for the police unions and the bureaucracy. Our job is to keep whatever secrets we can. If you don’t like it, sue us.

I have one last question: How can the manager (paid with taxpayers’ money) believe it’s OK to keep the details secret from his employers (the taxpayers) when he determines that city employees (also paid by taxpayers) have engaged in misconduct? Dave Zeeck: 253-597-8434