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Chief stands firm on labor dispute

Former HR police officer says firing was made without cause

Hood River City Police Chief Tony Dirks believes that he had no choice but to fire an officer last spring to preserve the “fragile” public trust.

However that officer, Aaron Swafford, claims that Dirks’ actions were taken without just cause and he should be reinstated with back pay.

Both sides of the labor dispute were aired during Friday’s formal arbitration hearing at the county courthouse. The arguments primarily centered on these two statements made by Swafford during sworn testimony at a DUII hearing on May 1:

Disagreeing that a principle of good police work was that officers “can always be trusted to tell the truth.”

Denying that a goal of good police work should be to “have no attitude or bias against citizens or the community to be fair.”

Dirks said he felt both “amazement and embarrassment” when Swafford, the arresting officer in the case, made those comments. He immediately placed the employee on paid administrative leave pending further investigation.

“The effect of this testimony as we have discussed at great length here today is that it would not allow a case to be successfully prosecuted when Aaron Swafford was not only the arresting officer but a witness,” said Dirks.

After interviewing his top command staff and other coummunity members and city officials present to hear Swafford’s “devastating” remarks, Dirks said it became clear that he had to fire the officer.

“We’re talking about goals, we’re talking about an officer that doesn’t even have any intention of trying to operate without a bias or tell the truth,” Dirks told Jamie Goldberg, Swafford’s attorney, at the Dec. 13 hearing.

However, Goldberg, who represented the Hood River Police Association, blasted Dirks for not first sitting down with Swafford to ask for the explanation behind his words. He said a possible difference in interpretation of the question should have been apparent since twice in earlier testimony Swafford had agreed that it was important for an officer to be objective in his duties.

“The department basically threw Aaron Swafford to the wolves in this trial, they basically left him unprotected because he told the truth,” Goldberg told Nancy Brown, labor arbitrator, who officiated over Friday’s hearing.

According to Goldberg, his client’s answer to the truth-telling question factored in the knowledge that detectives frequently lied to suspects to gain information. In addition, he said there was cases such as the infamous murder trial of O.J. Simpson where the lead detective, Mark Furman, was later found to be lying.

He also asserted that Swafford was “candidly” acknowledging that it was impossible for any human being not to bring their own personal beliefs into their job.

“I don’t think Mr. Swafford said anything that was shocking, he said what was honest,” Goldberg said.

Dirks issued a strong denial of Goldberg’s assertion that a well-known Portland defense lawyer had intimidated officials in the rural courtroom and deflected attention away from his client when he was allowed to attack Swafford, who was left undefended. The police chief said that in legal matters and public interactions there should never be a doubt that an officer was telling the truth. According to Dirks, that principle was extremely important to follow since law enforcement testimony frequently was given greater credence during contested court trials.

“I vehemently disagree with what he said, yes,” Dirks said to Goldberg. “My goal as a cop is to seek out what is good, what is right, what is just.”

But Goldberg contends that Dirks’ handling of the Swafford case was anything but just. He said the injustice began when the chief accused Swafford of several code of conduct violations in his first termination letter of May 3 and rendered the statement that he could conceive of no circumstance that would mitigate the disputed testimony.

For that reason Goldberg said labor attorneys then advised Swafford not to speak up when Dirks briefly reinstated him on May 10, again on administrative leave, in the realization that he had failed to follow state law by granting the officer a “predetermination” hearing. Immediately following that May 16 “formality,” Goldberg said Swafford was fired for a second and final time.

“The reason he didn’t make a statement in the predetermination hearing was that it wouldn’t matter what he said,” Goldberg argued.

Swafford’s past performance was also disputed in the Dec. 13 arbitration hearing. Although Goldberg said his client had received high marks in his 2001 job performance evaluation, Bruce Bischof, a labor attorney hired to represent the city, revealed information about a problematical review the previous year and other disciplinary action that he alleged raised questions about Swafford’s “honesty and integrity.”

In fact, he submitted evidence to Brown showing that a “last chance” agreement was put into place in August of 2000. He said that document was drafted after the department learned that Swafford had allegedly accepted more money to provide a security detail at an Expo Center event in 1998 than the contractor owed. The agreement also cited several other infractions, including Swafford’s one day suspension on Oct. 14, 1999 for reportedly entering a locked personnel file in the police chief’s office without permission. While working to re-establish his “credibility,” Bischof said Swafford was reduced in rank from a senior to routine patrol officer.

Bischof said when Dirks took his position in May of 2001 he decided to exercise his own judgment about Swafford’s capabilities so the officer was reinstated to his former rank. However, Bischof said when the defense attorney in the DUII case hinted that he had knowledge of Swafford’s checkered past, Dirks informed the officer about the potential problem and then gave him four days off with pay to think about his next course of action. However, Bischof said it became clear after the controversial testimony that Swafford could not be left on the police force.

“There is no way this officer can ever effectively again represent a police department where integrity and honesty are standards,” Bischof said.

Both sides of the labor issue expect Brown to render a legally binding decision on Swafford’s case by mid-March.

On Monday, Goldberg reiterated that Swafford’s past sanctions should not be factored into the current case against him because those problems were effectively dealt with.

“For comparison, that would be like stopping somebody for a traffic violation and when you can’t prove it you are not allowed to go back to the previous violation,” he said.

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