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Friday, May 25, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Arbitrators' decisions frustrate sheriff

Seattle Times staff reporter

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King County Sheriff's Deputy John Vanderwalker isn't the first police officer to get his job back after being fired for wrongdoing. And he certainly won't be the last.

Just last month, an arbitrator forced King County Sheriff Dave Reichert to reinstate deputy Sherry Valentine after she was fired for unbecoming conduct and dishonesty. The sheriff contended Valentine, while off duty, was drunk in a Kirkland bar, tussled with a bouncer, then gave an inaccurate portrayal of her behavior, which was caught on security video. The arbitrator ruled that she should keep her job, with a 30-day suspension.

Vanderwalker, who was fired for pepper-spraying two women and kicking another woman during the WTO riots, got his job back Wednesday after the case went to another arbitrator.

While these cases can outrage a boss and frustrate the public, experts say such outcomes are common.

The cases also open a window into the world of labor disputes:

** They are settled quietly, behind closed doors, by mostly unknown lawyers serving as arbitrators.

** The accused and their attorneys fight firings as fiercely as defense lawyers trying to save their clients from the gallows.

** Losers often go away frustrated, with nowhere else to turn.

"Labor lawyers refer to terminations as the capital punishment of labor, the industrial death penalty," says Sam Pailca, director of the Seattle Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability and a former labor lawyer for King County. "And arbitrators typically give great scrutiny to termination cases, especially if it's a veteran employee."

Reichert has been blasting arbitrator Michael de Grasse, a longtime labor lawyer in Walla Walla, whose binding decision returned Vanderwalker to the force, with back pay. There is no appeal.

De Grasse rejected the sheriff's claims that actions by Vanderwalker, a 19-year veteran, during WTO warranted his firing. And he found that the deputy had not lied when he said he didn't clearly remember kicking a woman who was in the street. De Grasse ruled that a 10-day suspension was appropriate.

The sheriff fired Vanderwalker last spring. The county later paid $100,000 to the women he pepper-sprayed in their car to settle their federal lawsuit.

It was Vanderwalker's second firing. In 1991, he was let go for entering a home without a search warrant. He was reinstated after he appealed successfully to a state labor board.

The Sheriff's Office has been flooded with phone calls and e-mails protesting Vanderwalker's reinstatement, said sheriff's spokesman John Urquhart. "And many of them are blaming us."

Those objections include WTO activists livid at the decision.

"The reinstatement condones and may even encourage the excessive use of force by law-enforcement officers in the region," said Mark Taylor-Canfield, an outspoken police critic who helps run a post-WTO group called the Committee for Government Accountability. "It also reflects badly on other members of the police force who do not commit violence against citizens."

De Grasse, 53, declined yesterday to discuss his decision. The name of the arbitrator in the Valentine case was not available.

A lawyer in Eastern Washington since 1974, de Grasse says he has handled labor cases and served as an arbitrator since 1982. One Seattle labor attorney, Bruce Schroeder, described de Grasse as "middle tier" among arbitrators.

"He's been doing this for quite a long time, and you have to be fair or you won't be doing it for long," said Cornelius Peck, a professor emeritus at the University of Washington Law School who taught de Grasse there. "If you get the reputation for being biased, you're out."

De Grasse's selection as the final decision-maker in the Vanderwalker case is rooted squarely in the contract between the county and the deputy's union. It calls for an arbitrator to be picked from a pool supplied by the American Arbitration Association, a national nonprofit group.

Vanderwalker's lawyer thinks the arrangement works just fine.

"Thank God, mob rule doesn't determine anyone's employment status," said Christopher Vick of Renton, Vanderwalker's attorney. "If John Vanderwalker had been successfully discharged, he wouldn't have been losing a job, he'd be losing a career. I'm not troubled by the fact that before you take someone's career away, you have to prove what you're accusing them of."

Sheriff Reichert isn't as pleased with the system.

In the past 10 years, the sheriff has fired eight deputies, Urquhart said. Only two -- Valentine and Vanderwalker -- appealed through arbitration. And both got their jobs back.

"We're very frustrated by this process," Urquhart said. "We feel that we are police officers, and we know what police officers should and shouldn't do. Yet now we have this civilian who says what's OK - and the guy lives in Walla Walla."

But Peck, himself an arbitrator since 1960, said that's a classic response, from both sides.

"This happens quite a bit, and management usually objects," the professor said. "But the public should realize that they didn't hear all the evidence. You can't tell just from reading a newspaper whether a witness is telling the truth."

So in the end, the sheriff can appeal to public opinion, but Vanderwalker still wears a badge.

"It's just like a jury trial," Urquhart said. "We don't always agree with the jury, but we have to live with the results."

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