City loses round one in Swafford labor dispute

The City of Hood River has lost its arbitration case over the disputed firing of a police officer — but vows to fight his return to work.

Labor Arbitrator Nancy Brown has determined the city did not have “just cause” to terminate Aaron Swafford in May of 2002 and has ordered the municipality to pay back wages and benefits from the time of his dismissal. She has also directed the municipality to reinstate him with seniority once he obtains his recertification as a police officer.

But Lynn Guenther, city manager, said the city will appeal Brown’s decision and do everything within its legal powers to keep Swafford from returning to the law enforcement role because of the breach in citizen trust that would ensue.

“It defies my imagination why a municipality should be ordered to reinstate any law enforcement officer who, under oath, has sworn that it is not important to tell the truth and be unbiased,” said Guenther.

At issue is these two statements Swafford made during sworn testimony at a DUII hearing last May:

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.”

According to Jamie Goldberg, Swafford’s attorney at the Dec. 13 arbitration hearing, 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 were cases, such as the infamous murder trial of O.J. Simpson, where the lead detective, Mark Furman, was later found to be lying.

Goldberg 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.

The Hood River Police Association (HRPA), Swafford’s labor union, outlined Brown’s findings in a press release last week. That document stated that the city was found to be “mistaken” in the statements it attributed to Swafford during the trial.

“Instead of waiting to review a transcript of the testimony before firing Swafford, the city management proceeded with its incorrect assumptions of the testimony and the assumptions were proven to be incorrect in the arbitration hearing,” read the statement.

Brown also found that the city did not conduct a “fair and objective” investigation before firing Swafford. On the day after the trial, Police Chief Tony Dirks relieved him of duty. He was briefly reinstated several days later when Dirks learned that he had failed to follow state law by granting the officer a “predetermination hearing.” Immediately following that hearing at which Dirks claims no evidence was presented, Swafford was fired a second and final time.

But Goldberg has blasted Dirks and city officials for not first sitting down with Swafford to ask for the explanation behind his court testimony. He said in December that 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.

Bruce Bischof, city attorney, contends that the decision to fire Swafford was not factored only on the disputed testimony but on many “honest and integrity” problems that appear to have begun with his employment in 1994.

In fact, Bischof argues in a legal brief following the December hearing that Swafford’s falsehoods were even revealed in that forum. He said Swafford testified to leaving military service in February of 1991 in lieu of a court marshal and admitted that he had been demoted to an enlisted rank. However, Bischof said on a security background worksheet attached to his employment application, Swafford claims that he left the service as a sergeant because his term of duty had ended.

Bischof pointed out to Brown prior to her ruling that Swafford signed the employment application that clearly stated “I understand that false or misleading information given in my application may result in discharge.”

In addition, he said that Swafford first claimed not to know the defendant at the 2002 trial but finally admitted under cross-examination that he had enacted a business deal with him in the past.

Swafford’s past performance also includes a “last chance” agreement that was put into place in August of 2001. Bischof 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 in October of 1999 for reportedly entering a locked personnel file in the former police chief’s office without permission.

In December, Goldberg reiterated that Swafford’s past sanctions should not be factored into the current case against him because those problems had been effectively dealt with.

But Guenther strongly disagrees that past disciplinary actions have solved what appears to be an ongoing problem with “truth-telling.”

He said if the city is forced to reinstate Swafford, it will be devastating for the morale of his fellow officers. In fact, Guenther pointed out that numerous members of the police department voluntarily stepped forward in December to publicly state their mistrust of Swafford and unwillingness to work with him any longer.

He said only one officer, Dan Garcia, HRPA president, spoke out on Swafford’s behalf at the arbitration hearing.

“We are looking at all of our options. We have grave concerns about the public good and the morale and safety of the police department if this officer is reinstated,” said Guenther.

He said the city will explore all available legal avenues to fight Brown’s ruling.

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