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Final legal question resolved, ‘stalking’ saga comes to an end: Police guild request to destroy records rejected

The legal back-and-forth in the dispute between the city of Bainbridge Island and a police officer accused of stalking a city councilwoman may have finally come to an end.

Scott Weiss, the Bainbridge police officer who was accused of tailing a councilwoman after a council meeting in October 2010, was cleared of  accusations of misconduct by an arbitrator in February. But the case has lingered on in the two months since, as the city has withheld payment of Weiss’ back wages until the end of the latest legal skirmish.

Janet Gaunt, the arbitrator in the labor dispute between the city and its police union, said in her February decision that it was wrong of the city to suspend Weiss without pay because there was a lack of evidence of misconduct. Weiss had been suspended without pay for 160 hours, and Gaunt told the city to restore any pay or benefits that Weiss lost while away from work.

Earlier this month, the arbitrator settled the remaining legal question in the case.

After the suspension was overturned, the Bainbridge Island Police Guild asked Gaunt on April 16 to order the city to have all of the documents that were compiled during the investigations on Weiss removed from the city’s files. The union also wanted the documents destroyed.

In a May 9 decision, Gaunt refused to order the destruction of the documents, but said they should be kept out of Weiss’ personnel file.

After Gaunt’s last decision, Weiss picked up his check for lost pay. It totaled $4,611.

The arbitrator’s final decision marked the apparent end to a long simmering controversy that cost the city thousands of dollars in legal fees and soured relationships between elected officials and the city’s police force. Weiss, now a detective with the Bainbridge police department, did not respond to requests for comment on the case.

Blogging for the union

The accusation of stalking stemmed from a special council meeting in October 2010, an evening that was consumed by council talk of budget cuts as the city struggled to regain its financial footing.

Weiss, who was president of the police union then, was on duty on the night of the council meeting and was seen talking with then-police chief Jon Fehlman as city hall emptied after the meeting.

Moments later, as then-councilwoman Kim Brackett left the meeting and went to then-councilman Bill Knobloch’s house for tea, she noticed Weiss following behind her in his patrol car as they drove down Winslow Way.

Weiss later posted comments using another name on newspaper websites about Brackett meeting with Knobloch after the council session.

Brackett said she was alarmed someone had followed her after the meeting, and she later asked for an investigation.

Investigation launched

The Washington State Patrol investigated Weiss for “intimidating a public servant” and “stalking,” and the investigation found that Weiss had not committed any crimes.

After a second administrative investigation by the State Patrol,  Fehlman, the police chief for Bainbridge, said Weiss had violated police department rules and its general orders manual. He was put on administrative leave and was told he was facing discipline for surveilling a city council member for personal reasons while on duty.

Weiss said later, at his disciplinary hearing, that he never had Brackett under surveillance, but had driven down Knobloch’s street within an hour of the close of the council meeting while on a routine patrol. He also admitted writing an online post the next day that said Brackett “went straight to Bill Knobloch’s house after the council meeting no doubt to commiserate and plan the attack to try & sway or undo the council decisions.”

City officials, including some on the council, found Weiss’ explanation hard to believe, given the short time frame when he would have been able to see Brackett’s Volvo station wagon parked in Knobloch’s driveway.

Weiss, for his part, admitted following Brackett partly down Winslow Way, but said he turned off when he got to the police station.

Still, officials wondered how Weiss, with the whole island to patrol, could have found his way to Knobloch’s so quickly after the meeting if he hadn’t been following the councilwoman the whole way, especially given his comment that Brackett went “straight to” her fellow council member’s home after the meeting.

There was also irritation at Weiss for his online comments that were critical of city officials. Weiss was a prolific commenter on newspaper websites that carried Bainbridge news stories, and Weiss posted anonymously under the name “Hunter,” a nod to his favorite writer, gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

Details come out in hearing

Much of the details of the perceived stalking incident were recounted during an arbitration hearing that brought Weiss and Brackett, as well as former city manager Brenda Bauer, back to Bainbridge city hall in early November.

According to a transcript of the hearing, Sophia Mabee, an attorney for the city, told the arbitrator the council had “a great deal of distrust and suspicion” of the police department.

“City council members felt that officers were not trustworthy, that they were engaging in intimidation, and that people were scared to bring complaints forward against police officers,” Mabee said.

At the same time, the city was struggling with its finances and a busted budget. Cuts to the police department were being weighted against funding for local arts and culture, she said.

Weiss was keenly interested in local politics, she said and had a personal stake in the council’s 2011 budget decisions because of his job as an officer.

As the anonymous blogger called Hunter, Weiss was “quite ruthless,” Mabee said, and made disparaging remarks about elected officials.

The city’s attorney recounted the council meeting that wrapped up just before the alleged stalking occurred.

The council had been talking about budget cuts, and Weiss showed up at the tail end of the meeting, about 30 minutes after he started his graveyard shift.

Mabee said he had no law enforcement reason to be there.

After the meeting ended, Knobloch asked Brackett if she wanted to come over for a cup of tea with Knobloch and his wife before she went to Seattle to visit her ailing husband in the hospital.

After she left city hall, Weiss followed her on Winslow Way and Brackett said she lost sight of his patrol car in the ferry traffic after she drove past Highway 305.

Mabee said Brackett was so disturbed by being followed by police that she did not tell the city manager or police chief about the incident for months.

Mabee also said Weiss’ blog “reveals his strong personal dislike for their vote and his interest in gossiping about them in a way intended to discredit and undermine them.”

“This case is not about Officer Weiss’s right to speak out as a private citizen on local politics. It’s about abusing police authority to trail an elected official for personal reasons when those reasons were to gossip about, embarrass and potentially intimidate them.”

“If this is how a police officer treats a council member, how should private citizens expect to be treated?” Mabee asked.

Incident garners headlines

Mabee recalled how Bracket was contacted by local news media and others, including NPR, the Seattle Times and a Seattle television station.

“This kind of police behavior has huge ripple effects on public trust,” Mabee said. “When the public doesn’t trust police officers, they lose the moral authority to enforce the law, and the whole community suffers.”

Bauer, the city’s former manager, said she arrived in her new job as city manager in May 2010 to a city “in a great deal of disarray, and a community that was very polarized.”

Bauer was the seventh city manager/administrator in as many years, the budget was a mess — the city had been put on credit watch by Moody’s and Bauer was putting together a budget without the help of a finance director or deputy.

The island was still coming to grips with its change to a council-manager form of government, and there was also concern about the city’s police department, and litigation on accusations of abuse of police authority, Bauer said.

Bauer also recalled the split on the council at the time.

“The majority on council was interested in more of a full-service local government, and the minority was interested in more of a contract local government, and they were on the side that tended to vote against city funding of city services and were looking for more of a contract approach to local government,” she said.

During her testimony, Bauer said the council did not trust their police officers.

“I heard from every single council member that they did not trust the police and that they were concerned that the police were harassing teenagers and citizens,” she said.

“They were concerned that the police were out of control. Council member Brackett was particularly vocal about that.”

Drill prompts complaint

Bauer recalled the night the council was given a briefing on what to do in case of an emergency, how they would slip out the back door of the room into a secure storage room and wait until the police chief or commander came by to tell them it was safe to come out.

“After we had said a few things about that, Council member Brackett started commenting very vociferously that she didn’t trust the police and she didn’t know what she was supposed to do if the police knocked on the door and said it was safe to come out, whether it would be safe or not, and that numerous complaints had been made about the police, and that no one had done anything about it.’

“She didn’t feel safe, and she didn’t want to trust that it would be safe to leave that room,” Bauer said, adding that Brackett said police officers “were following her and harassing her, and no one was doing anything about it.”

For her part, Brackett also said others had been intimidated, including Debbie Vancil when she was on the council.

Bauer recalled an interview she had with Vancil, and how Vancil had said a group of police officers were leaning up against her car and blocked her way out after she left a meeting at city hall.

Vancil did not want to make a complaint, however.

“She was fearful of the police and she did not want to make a formal complaint,” Bauer said.

Termination considered

Bauer said the allegation of misconduct was “very significant,” and that Weiss could have lost his job over it.

Bauer said the 160-hour suspension was the most serious discipline the city could impose “short of termination.”

“Officer Weiss did indicate that he would be willing to apologize to the council member, that he regretted how his comments were perceived, and that he was committed to in the future avoiding a similar kind of circumstance. And because of those mitigating factors, I was willing to reduce the level of discipline from termination.”

After the alleged stalking incident made headlines, Bauer said she had complaints from two different council members that they had been followed by police or police had behaved improperly.

“They were very concerned that the police ... would harass them, that their decisions could result in police harassment, and they generally were very distrustful. I received some very specific complaints about actions that police officers took after this.

“A lot of members of the community came to me and said that they felt that something needed to change dramatically with the police department,” she said.

For her part, Brackett said Hunter’s comment about her online was “creepy.”

“I felt harassed. I felt intimidated,” she said. “I felt vulnerable.”

Brackett, however, didn’t tell anyone at city hall about it for four months.

She said during the arbitration hearing that she didn’t report it right away because she wasn’t at every council meeting and was preoccupied with caring for her husband; he had pneumonia five times that winter.

Union claims retribution

Weiss, and his lawyer, cast the case as one of pay back.

“This case is about retribution. Retribution for being a union president as well as being a citizen gadfly,” Jeffery Julius, the union’s attorney, said during the arbitration hearing.

Weiss was targeted for overly harsh discipline because of the police union’s increased activism after he became guild president in 2008, Julius said.

“The city is punishing Scott for speaking out as the guild president and a citizen of Bainbridge Island,” Julius told the arbitrator.

Weiss, who was hired by Bainbridge as a reserve officer in 1989 and became a full-time employee in 1991, recalled how he started the police union in 1998.

He also recalled posting the comment online that led to the accusation of stalking.

Weiss said he only assumed that Brackett had gone directly to Knobloch’s home, since he pulled off Winslow Way at the police station.

Weiss also noted that another officer who had made an inappropriate post on Facebook had only been given a warning, and not suspended. Weiss also said he was blogging on behalf of the police union, although he also said he never made his connection to the guild known to his online readers.

Weiss also recounted the active role the union had taken after he became president.

The union asked for negotiations in the fall of 2009 after the city wanted to put GPS locators in police cars, and had plans to have officers wear personal video cameras. The guild later asked the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission, which handles labor-management disputes involving public employees, to step in as mediators.

Weiss also recalled the time he complained in 2010 that the city had not adopted anything that would allow police officers to enforce laws against the use and possession of marijuana; and the hiring of a consultant to review the process for people filing complaints against the police department.

The union also filed an unfair labor practices complaint in fall 2010 against the city, Weiss said, after it tried to set up a quota system on the number of tickets an officer should write within a certain time period. The guild also went to the city’s civil service commission in January 2011 to protest a plan to change the rank of police lieutenants to sergeants, he said.

In the end, the arbitrator’s decision came down to not only a lack of evidence, but credibility.

Gaunt said in her decision that she found Weiss, a two-time “officer of the year,” to be a “very convincing witness.”

 

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