A veteran Yakima police officer accused of using false information on a search warrant has had his punishment reduced greatly, with an arbitrator ruling that his 30-day unpaid suspension was far greater than punishment given to other officers whose actions in another case were worse.
After nearly two years, a Portland labor arbitrator last week reduced the suspension of Gary Garza, a 25-year officer with the Yakima Police Department, to only one day.
The Yakima Police Patrolman’s Association praised the decision.
“We just wanted somebody impartial to look at it and make a decision that is more fair to the individual who got in trouble,” Tony Patlan, the union president, said Friday.
City Manager Tony O’Rourke, who assumed his duties long after the dispute started in 2011, has the option to appeal the arbitrator’s decision to a Yakima County Superior Court judge. Before deciding, he said he wants to discuss the matter with police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr., who is on vacation until Monday.
“We mutually accepted and agreed to a process (to arbitrate disputes); this is part of the process,” O’Rourke said. “You need to respect the process. Sometimes you prevail and sometimes you don’t.”
Mitchell Riese, the union’s attorney, said he considered it unlikely the city will appeal because it would need to convince a judge the arbitrator did something clearly outside his legal bounds.
“I would be very surprised if the city was to try and overturn the arbitrator’s decision,” said Riese, of Cline and Associates in Seattle.
The issue started in February 2011 when Garza admittedly made several errors in writing a search warrant affidavit while helping other officers conduct a narcotics investigation.
Greg Copeland, interim chief at the time, recommended that Garza be fired because the affidavit included false information. But then-City Manager Don Cooper imposed a 30-day suspension in October 2011, saying he believed Garza didn’t intend to commit any wrongdoing.
Garza and the union filed a grievance and both sides agreed to turn the matter over to an arbitrator.
Arbitrator William Greer determined 30 days was inappropriate considering the internal turmoil within the narcotics unit at the time, “which likely affected Garza.” Greer said he considered Garza’s actions to be negligent and “an isolated incident.”
“That sanction is outside the range of reasonable discipline and is disproportionate to (Garza’s) charged and proven negligent misconduct,” Greer wrote in his decision.
He said he also considered the punishment disproportionate in light of the discipline meted out to two officers who were suspended for only five days for using a city credit card to buy beer at a Spokane training conference and then submitting falsified expense vouchers to try to cover it up.
The beer incident involved officers Chad Urwin and Ryan Urlacher, who together bought about $400 worth of beer at Boston Pizza and Hooter’s while attending a June 2011 training session in Spokane. They had their beer purchases listed as tips on their receipts for dinners purchased.
Copeland had also recommended Urwin and Urlacher be fired, but Cooper settled on a five-day suspension for both, concluding their actions were more a result of confusion over city policies than an intent to violate the policies.
• Ross Courtney can be reached at 509-930-8798 or email@example.com.