WAPATO — A Wapato police officer has filed a $1.5 million claim against the city for “divisive and inflammatory” comments its mayor posted on social media in the aftermath of a July officer-involved fatal shooting.
Officer Michael Campos says he’s suffered defamation as a result of Mayor Tony Guzman’s comments, which have created a hostile work environment for him — an assertion bolstered by several officers who wrote supportive letters for Campos that were included in his claim against the city.
“At a time when Mayor Guzman could have been a voice of calm and healing in a very painful time for the citizens and law enforcement officers alike, Mayor Guzman chose to be extraordinarily divisive and inflammatory in contributing to a hostile working environment for Mr. Campos,” Yakima County Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Russell wrote in a letter.
Warning: Michael Campos' claim contains obscene language.
At issue is a Facebook post Guzman made in the days following the shooting death of 38-year-old Mario Martinez-Torres during a July 31 domestic disturbance call involving Campos and Sgt. Larry Ehrhardt. Campos fatally shot Martinez-Torres as he struggled with the officers in the bathroom of a Wapato home, according to police reports. The shooting was later ruled justified by the Yakima County Prosecutor’s Office and Campos, who was on routine paid leave, returned to work last month.
In his Facebook post, Guzman called Campos a murderer and said he “deserves to die in prison.” He also said Campos was a “disgrace” to the Wapato police department and told Campos that “if you have an ounce of dignity, never show your face in Wapato.”
Guzman late Thursday declined requests for comment on Campos’ claim. In an October interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic about the post, Guzman said he stood by his comments but acknowledged he could have chosen his words better.
“Do I regret posting it? No,” Guzman told the newspaper. “Should I have worded it different? Yes.”
The city has until Feb. 7 to respond. If Wapato officials ignore the claim, Campos plans to sue the city, said his Yakima attorney Bill Pickett.
In addition to Russell, letters from other area police officers also expressed concern for Campos’ safety and worried that he could be targeted for retaliation as a result of the shooting. The officers also agree with Russell in saying that Guzman’s web posting contributed to a hostile working environment.
Campos’ brother, Ruben Campos, who is a Yakima County corrections officer, wrote that Guzman’s comments have placed his brother’s life in danger. Tieton Police Chief Jeff Ketchum in another letter wrote that Guzman’s words “put a target on (Campos’) back.” Ketchum also pointed to a recent incident in which a gang member shot at Ehrhardt, who was present during the fatal shooting, as proof of the potential risk Campos faces.
However, Wapato Police Chief Dave Simmons on Thursday said there’s been no evidence Campos faces any enhanced danger.
“As of this date, there is nothing that we’ve been able to find — we’ve done our due diligence checking social media — that puts him in any more danger than any other officer,” Simmons said.
Simmons acknowledged officers were shot at during an incident within the past few months but said it was unrelated to the fatal shooting during the domestic call.
Meanwhile, Campos has been working away from the streets in a detective position to allow him time to reacclimate, Simmons said.
“He’s a very good officer and we’re working through these issues with him,” Simmons said. “We feel like we’ve done our due diligence with assessing the situation and in determining that he faces the same danger any other officer faces.”