Despite credibility issues, WA cops find police jobs elsewhere
By Melissa Santos / Crosscut.com
Anders Fiksdal resigned from his job as a Washington state trooper after being accused of letting another law enforcement officer’s son skate on a drunken driving charge.
Former trooper Saul Duran similarly resigned from the State Patrol after he damaged a special operations vehicle by driving it up a flight of stairs, then failed to immediately report it, according to his supervisors.
Both now work as police officers in other, smaller jurisdictions — Fiksdal in Lynden and Duran in Eatonville.
They are among at least 22 officers in Washington state whose behavior landed them on a list of cops with credibility issues, yet who moved to other departments and continue to work in law enforcement.
This group of officers who moved between departments doesn’t include all cops who found new jobs after committing misconduct, resigning under pressure or being fired.
Yet their ability to move between agencies highlights some of the gaps that have long existed in the state’s police accountability system.
Many of those gaps are being addressed by new laws Washington’s Legislature approved earlier this year.
But for officers whose histories of misconduct stretch back years, the new laws may not touch them.
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‘A red flag’
Prosecutors are required to track cops who have been accused of dishonesty or other behavior that could be used to question their testimony in court. They must share that information with defense attorneys, to ensure defendants’ right to a fair trial.
In April, a Crosscut investigation identified 183 officers across Washington state who had been flagged by prosecutors for issues such as lying, filing inaccurate reports, using excessive force or being racially biased, yet who still worked as cops. These officers are tracked using tools commonly called Brady lists, after a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
For the most part, the roughly two dozen officers on Brady lists who transferred to new departments weren’t accused of the most egregious forms of misconduct, such as using excessive force.
Yet nearly two-thirds of them were identified as having lied or engaged in some form of deception, something highly concerning to those involved in the criminal justice system.
Alissa Heydari, deputy director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said police officers need to be held to the highest standards of integrity, because what they say decides people’s futures.
While Heydari didn’t review or comment on specific officers’ cases in Washington state, she said any type of untruthfulness in an officer’s background is problematic.
“Regardless of what it is, dishonesty is a red flag,” Heydari said. “If we are going to rely on officers to be witnesses in a case, where they may potentially be sending someone to prison or leaving someone with a conviction, it is critical that the officers involved are honest people.”
In Fiksdal and Duran’s cases, they resigned from the State Patrol before an investigation could be completed, avoiding sustained findings of dishonesty or other misconduct. Both of their current chiefs praised their performance and said that the past incidents shouldn’t be held against them.
While Fiksdal didn’t respond to requests for an interview, Duran wrote in an email that he has found Eatonville to be a better fit for him than the State Patrol and is grateful for the opportunity.
In other cases reviewed by Crosscut, investigations were completed and determined the officers violated department policies — but those findings still did not prevent them from landing new jobs.
Incentive to hire ex-cops
Sometimes, police chiefs and sheriffs knew of officers’ past misconduct and hired them anyway.
That was the case with Ryan Taylor, who was fired from the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, but later got a job in neighboring Skamania County.
An internal investigation in 2011 found that Taylor drove his Clark County patrol vehicle extensively for personal use, racking up at least 8,000 miles in unauthorized driving over two years. Investigators also found that Taylor drove his children in his work vehicle without permission, used his work cellphone for unauthorized personal calls, and ran unauthorized computer checks to dig up information on his ex-wife’s new boyfriend. Taylor then violated agency policy again by visiting the man’s home, an investigation found.
“Such transgressions bring an incredible amount of discredit upon the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, the law enforcement profession, and you,” wrote Mike Evans, the former chief criminal deputy of the Clark County Sheriff’s Office, in a letter firing Taylor.
Because of those findings, the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office placed Taylor on its Brady list for dishonesty.
In an interview with Crosscut, however, Taylor disputed that he ever lied. He also said he didn’t put 8,000 personal miles on his work vehicle, but instead logged those miles completing investigations and conducting extra patrols, often on days he wasn’t scheduled to work.
Still, Taylor agreed to pay Clark County $4,200 to make up for the 8,000 miles.
Skamania County Sheriff Dave Brown said he looked at those internal investigation findings before he hired Taylor in 2014. Had he had been in charge in Clark County, Brown said, he probably would not have fired Taylor over the same set of facts.
In a recent phone interview, Brown described Taylor as “extremely intelligent — probably one of the smartest cops I have ever been around.”
Moreover, Brown said hiring a previously employed law enforcement officer was an attractive option, since it meant he wouldn’t have to put Taylor through the same amount of training as a new recruit.
Between the necessary field officer training, five months at the state’s training academy and the time it can take for an academy spot to open up in the first place, new recruits can spend 15 months on an agency’s payroll before they can respond to calls independently, Brown said.
For the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office, that would mean spending something like $100,000 on salary, equipment and other costs for a recruit who may not survive probation, he said.
“You have now paid a year and a half of wages and investment and time before you can see if they are even going to make it,” Brown said.
That creates a strong incentive for small agencies to hire officers who previously have worked as cops, even if those officers may have had issues in the past, Brown said.
Fired, but now in charge
In a few cases, officers on Brady lists have risen to high-level leadership positions after being fired or pushed out of their previous jobs.
James Keller, an assistant police chief in the Pierce County city of Bonney Lake, previously worked as a King County sheriff’s deputy, but resigned in June 2007 while the subject of multiple internal investigations. Those investigations eventually found that Keller made fraudulent statements and misused his authority when he detained someone.
It wasn’t the first time Keller had gotten into trouble. In 2004, another internal investigation found that Keller used excessive force when he punched and pepper sprayed an informant, then, along with several other officers, drove the informant to the Green River. The informant believed Keller and the other officers were going to throw him into the river, according to a King County memo.
While the initial recommendation in that case was to fire Keller, then-Sheriff Dave Reichert gave Keller a 20-day suspension instead.
Keller started his new job in Bonney Lake in November 2007, about five months after he resigned from the King County Sheriff’s Office. Keller did not respond to a request for an interview last week.
Keller’s former partner, James Schrimpsher, was similarly disciplined and fired from King County in 2007 after the agency found he gave false statements during an internal investigation. The agency found Schrimpsher had violated policy in other ways as well, including when he improperly handcuffed, detained and searched someone.
Prosecutors’ failure to disclose the dishonesty findings against Schrimpsher led to at least one person’s conviction being overturned. In another case, prosecutors dropped charges “in the interest of justice” after Schrimpsher’s firing; the defendant had already served a year in prison.
Attorneys for that man later wrote that his “life ha[d] been ruined by a severe miscarriage of justice.” The man’s conviction made it so he couldn’t find work and he fell into homelessness, his lawyers said.
Schrimpsher now is the chief of police in Algona, a city in south King County.
In an interview last week, Schrimpsher said that he “was on a bad path” when he was fired from King County 14 years ago, but has since changed.
He said he now spends much of his time urging other officers to support police reform measures, such as a new use-of-force law the Legislature approved earlier this year.
Regarding his time in King County, Schrimpsher said, “I’m not going to lie, I screwed up.”
“If I had to do it again, I would have gone a different way,” he said. “… I am thankful and grateful I had a second chance.”
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‘A new standard’
Under a new state law, Senate Bill 5051, officers who engage in dishonesty or other serious misconduct are more likely to lose their licenses to work as police officers. Such a step, called decertification, would prevent them from transferring to another police department in Washington state.
Under the new law, the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, which licenses police officers, can conduct its own investigations into a wider range of police misconduct than before.
But the agency told Crosscut it does not plan to go back in time to try to suspend or revoke officers’ certifications for past offenses. Commission spokesperson Megan Saunders wrote in an email that the state attorney general’s office has advised that the new law should not apply retroactively.
Some state lawmakers who worked to pass the measure had a different idea in mind. State Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, said she understood that SB 5051 was specifically written to allow past misconduct to play a role in decertification proceedings.
“My intent was definitely not to limit it in any way,” said Dhingra, who worked on several police accountability bills this year.
Schrimpsher, now a vice president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, said he thinks looking backward at old misconduct could pose legal issues.
“As far as going backwards, you can’t apply a new standard to something that was not the standard 10 or 20 years ago,” Schrimpsher said.
At the same time, ignoring past misconduct could make it more difficult for the state to address patterns of concerning behavior, said Ali Hohman, the director of legal services at the Washington Defender Association. In her experience, cops who misbehave tend to do so more than once, she said.
“To restrict something by time, you may miss something,” Hohman said.
Just because an incident happened many years ago doesn’t mean it is forgotten.
For Shawn Dodge, her experience with an officer who abused his authority still angers her 10 years later.
In 2011, Ephrata Police Officer Jeff Wentworth came to Dodge’s home in Moses Lake, looking for an Xbox he had given his stepson. Wentworth’s stepson had tried to sell the game console to Dodge’s 19-year-old son, who didn’t want it, but one of Dodge’s co-workers had decided to buy it instead.
While toting his gun and badge, Wentworth demanded the return of the Xbox. He then told Dodge’s son that he was trafficking in stolen property and could go to “the big boy jail,” since he was over 18.
Wentworth also went inside Dodge’s home and waited for her to get out of the shower, before telling her, too, that her son had committed a crime.
Dodge filed a complaint.
A review by the Ephrata Police Department found that Wentworth had abused his position and made false statements during the Xbox affair. He received a written reprimand.
Elsewhere, he might have been fired. Andrew Myerberg, the civilian director of Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability, said he would have recommended terminating a Seattle officer who behaved that way.
“It’s using your position for personal gain, it’s unprofessional, it’s theoretically a violation of law and it’s dishonest,” Myerberg said.
Wentworth didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
Two years ago, Wentworth started working for the Grant County Sheriff’s Office. A request for his disciplinary records showed no evidence of similar complaints being filed against him at the county.
Still, Dodge said the incident with Wentworth has stuck with her. It also profoundly affected a young relative she cared for, who was 9 and in her home at the time. That relative is now 18 and “hates cops,” she said.
“We had some sleepless nights, saying, ‘Not all cops are bad people,’ ” Dodge said.
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Not all officers’ problems are squarely in the past. For some, the issues that led them to leave one department crop up again in their new jobs.
In 2012, Steven Jensen resigned as the police chief in Mattawa, in Grant County, after an audit found he and his officers routinely mishandled evidence. The audit found Jensen left evidence strewn around the police station and in his patrol car — and that Jensen was as much as two years behind on paperwork.
Those findings caused Jensen to be added to Grant County’s Brady list.
Jensen soon found another job, in Moxee, Yakima County, where similar performance issues resurfaced.
Last year, one of Jensen’s supervisors wrote in a letter that Jensen’s “reports have become sloppy and incomplete.” Shortly before that letter was written, Jensen improperly handled two domestic violence calls and a driving under the influence case, his supervisor said.
“[T]he problem appears to be getting worse rather than better,” Sgt. Mark Lewis wrote.
The current chief in Moxee, who wasn’t involved in Jensen’s hiring, said he wasn’t aware of the Mattawa audit, or that Jensen was on another county’s Brady list, until Crosscut emailed him last week. He said he was looking into the matter.
Jensen did not respond to emails requesting an interview.
Terry Carter, another cop on the Brady list who shuffled between departments, similarly has had issues arise at his new policing job. In addition to working as a small-town police officer, Carter is now an elected city council member in Bonney Lake, the same city that once pushed him out of its police department.
In 2013, an internal investigation found that Carter mishandled a report of a threat made against another Bonney Lake police official. Because the reported threat came in at the end of Carter’s shift, he asked his supervisor if he could take care of it the next day, without sharing key details. Carter then put relevant evidence in his trunk and didn’t attend to it until more than two days later. He was cited for dishonesty as well as several other policy violations, including conduct unbecoming.
Carter told Crosscut he had quickly determined the reported threat wasn’t real.
Carter previously had been disciplined for not responding to a nearby suicide call while he was having lunch at a Quiznos. He had asked another officer, who was further away and in the middle of a criminal traffic stop, to respond instead.
Records show that Carter resigned from Bonney Lake in 2013 to avoid termination.
Carter now works as a detective in the nearby city of Pacific, in King County. There, he came under scrutiny last year for having a backlog of dozens of open cases, many of which he failed to follow up on or investigate. Thirty of those cases were sex crimes, some involving children, his police chief wrote.
Carter told Crosscut that the discipline he received over that case backlog — a suspension — was because the department needed someone to take the fall for systemic failures.
The police chief in Pacific, Craig Schwartz, declined to provide more details, saying it was a personnel matter and he could not comment.
Carter, who was elected to the Bonney Lake City Council in 2017, is up for reelection in November. He disputes that he was dishonest in Bonney Lake and said he was pushed out for other reasons, including interpersonal conflicts.
While the state’s new police decertification law may not affect some officers with black marks on their records, Dhingra, the state senator from Redmond, said she’s optimistic this year’s changes will help improve policing culture overall.
“The message is we do not tolerate egregious conduct in law enforcement,” Dhingra said. “For bad officers who have engaged in misconduct, I hope they take this opportunity to self-reflect on what their profession should be.”
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