Special Reports

City says no on ex-cop’s pension

A year ago, Tacoma city leaders said they wanted to restore the lost pension benefits of a veteran cop. Now they’re telling him to forget it.

Ray Roberts was an assistant police chief in the summer of 2002 when Police Chief David Brame abruptly pushed him into early retirement by threatening him with demotion.

The story led City Manager Jim Walton to call Brame’s actions an abuse of power. Last year, Walton talked of returning Roberts to city service long enough to recover the benefits.

Since then, the city’s legal department has reversed course, telling Roberts he has no claim to the benefits and has tacked on a demand for attorney fees.

Roberts filed a lawsuit against the city in July. On Oct. 5, the city filed a court brief replying to his complaint. The brief questions the quality of Roberts’ 29-year service record, and claims the city has no evidence Brame was a vindictive leader who ruled by fear and intimidation.

Public records held by the city contradict both points, but leaders won’t discuss the situation, citing the active lawsuit.

Roberts sued in Pierce County Superior Court after the city rejected his claim for damages earlier this year. It is one of several legal actions spurred by the events of April 26, 2003, when Brame fatally shot his wife, Crystal, and himself.

Roberts retired as an assistant police chief Aug. 5, 2002 – 30 days before completing 30 years in the department. It was a milestone of personal pride that also would have increased his pension. He had hoped to stay on with the department through January 2003, when he would have been eligible for an 8 percent pay increase.

Retiring let Roberts to maintain his salary as an assistant chief and avoid the pay cut that would have accompanied a drop in rank.

In the suit, Roberts claims Brame knew the consequences of the demotion and took pleasure in causing Roberts pain.

Last September, when the story of the demotion became public, Walton called Brame’s treatment of Roberts “the ultimate in abuse of power and privilege.”

At the time, Walton said he spoke to Police Chief Don Ramsdell about returning Roberts to the department long enough to qualify for a 30-year pension. Some police officers and commanders privately bridled at Walton’s statements, and said Roberts was not a popular leader in the force.

Nothing came of Walton’s efforts. On Friday, he would not explain why, and refused comment.

City officials typically refuse to discuss active litigation.

Roberts filed a damage claim with the city in March. In two separate responses, acting city attorney Elizabeth Pauli rejected it, noting that Roberts was an “at-will” employee, meaning Brame had the right to demote him.

Pauli added that Roberts could have stayed on as a captain, noted that not reaching the 30-year mark cost him only $17 per month in pension benefits, and suggested Roberts’ complaint centered on the missed opportunity to take advantage of a pending raise.

Roberts could not be reached for comment at his Idaho home. His attorney, David Merdach, argues that Brame’s actions interfered with an economic opportunity, and that the demotion was mean-spirited and retaliatory. Brame and Roberts were rivals in the department – both applied for the chief’s position in 2001.

“I think Brame was trying to construct an inner circle of yes men,” Merdach said. The city doesn’t want to say “Brame was a loose cannon.’”

Roberts’ suit states that his police personnel file “reflects stellar performance” in his years of service, and says he has received numerous commendations. The city’s Oct. 5 response states that it is “without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth” of that claim.

Roberts’ personnel file notes that he won the department’s lifesaving medal twice, and also won the department’s public service award. The file includes 17 letters of commendation and thanks from police commanders, local leaders and residents.

The city’s brief also claims it doesn’t have the information to verify claims about Brame’s leadership. The brief states that the city has no “knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of the allegation” that Brame was a vindictive leader who supervised the police department by intimidation and fear.

As recently as Oct. 1, a citizens’ panel appointed by city leaders described the police department under Brame as “a culture of intimidation and fear.”

Other public records in the city’s possession describe Brame’s tenure in similar terms. The records stem from lawsuits, public reports and investigations of the scandal by the Washington State Patrol, the attorney general’s office, and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

The attorney general’s final summary of the criminal investigation concluded that Brame’s leadership style “included a requirement of absolute loyalty to him personally,” and “ exacerbated some of the deficiencies that already existed in the department. Chief Brame’s domineering leadership style and his maneuverings to get and keep his job seemed to have deepened this ‘culturally deficient’ working environment.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486