By Paul Kiefer
The Washington State Court of Appeals issued a ruling on Monday upholding the Seattle Police Department’s 2016 decision to fire Officer Adley Shepherd for punching a woman while she was handcuffed in the back of a patrol car.
After then-Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole announced she was firing Shepherd, Shepherd and his union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), appealed her decision to an arbitrator—in this case, an attorney who can approve, adjust or overturn disciplinary actions for police officers. In 2018, the arbitrator sided with Shepherd, directing SPD to re-hire him and offer back pay.
But Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes stood by Shepherd’s firing, asking the King County Superior Court to vacate the arbitrator’s decision—a rare challenge to the authority of arbitrators in police disciplinary cases, whose decisions are typically final. The Superior Court agreed with Holmes; after another appeal by SPOG, so did the Court of Appeals.
The city’s success in the Shepherd case could have broader implications for police discipline in both Seattle and Washington State as a whole. The ruling underscores the importance of consequences for misuses of force by police; it also casts a spotlight on efforts to reform the arbitration process itself, which many reformers argue is biased in police officers’ favor.
In June 2014, Shepherd arrested 23-year-old Miyekko Durden-Bosley after stepping into an argument between Durden-Bosley and her daughter’s father, Robert Shelby. At the time, Durden-Bosley was drunk and agitated, but she hadn’t committed any obvious crimes—Shelby’s mother had called 911 to report that Durden-Bosley had threatened her son over the phone, and Shepherd arrived to investigate.
The Court of Appeals took the unprecedented step of outlining an “explicit, well-defined and dominant public policy” prohibiting the excessive use of force by police rooted in the US Constitution and underscored in Seattle’s 2012 agreement with the Department of Justice that requires SPD to address “unconstitutional practices” by its officers.
When Shepherd handcuffed Durden-Bosley and pushed her into the back seat of his patrol car, she kicked him in the jaw. Two seconds later, Shepherd retaliated by punching Durden-Bosley in the eye, leaving her with two small fractures in her eye socket. Shepherd himself was mostly uninjured by the kick. After investigations into the incident by several oversight agencies, including Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA), O’Toole decided to fire Shepherd for the unnecessary use of force. Throughout the investigations, Shepherd refused to acknowledge that he had made a mistake; after his firing, he maintained his innocence and appealed O’Toole’s decision.
The arbitrator who later reviewed Shepherd’s appeal didn’t dispute that Shepherd violated SPD policy when he punched the handcuffed Durden-Bosley. However, the arbitrator also concluded that the circumstances surrounding Shepherd’s punch—both the argument and kick that preceded it, specifically— had “mitigate[d] somewhat the seriousness” of his policy violation, and that firing Shepherd was an excessive response to his actions—before Shepherd, the arbitrator noted, SPD had never fired an officer for using “unreasonable non-lethal force on a suspect.”
Instead, the arbitrator ordered SPD to re-hire Shepherd and offer him back pay for all but 15 days of the time that had passed since his firing; those 15 days, the arbitrator decided, would suffice as a punishment for his policy violation. According to Seattle’s contract with SPOG, the arbitrator’s decision was final.
Nevertheless, Holmes decided to challenge the arbitrator’s ruling, arguing that reinstating Shepherd would violate the “public policy against excessive use of force in policing.” Despite SPOG’s objections, the Superior Court agreed that Shepherd had unambiguously breached an “explicit, well-defined and dominant public policy” and that a 15-day suspension wouldn’t suffice as a consequence. Continue reading “Court Upholds Firing of Officer Who Punched Handcuffed Woman, Challenges Authority of Arbitrators”