May 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Seattle parking officer fired over lynching comment gets his job back

Illustration of a cracked magnifying glass over a police badge.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

A Seattle parking enforcement officer who was fired for making a comment endorsing lynching will keep his job after being reinstated by an arbitrator.

Why it matters: Jonathan Skeie's reinstatement shows how police discipline doesn't always stick.

  • Even when departments fire or suspend employees for making racist comments or abusing authority, officers can get their punishment overturned by appealing to private arbitrators.

Context: In June 2020, Skeie told a colleague, "I don't understand why we can't just bring back lynching," according to a copy of the arbitrator's decision, which Axios obtained last week. Skeie made the comment during the height of the racial justice protests that gripped Seattle after the murder of George Floyd.

  • Interim Seattle police chief Adrian Diaz fired Skeie in January 2021 following an internal investigation.
  • Of note: Parking officers, who were part of the police department at the time of Skeie's firing, don't carry guns or make arrests.

Details: According to the Jan. 30 arbitrator's decision, Skeie made the lynching comment in the office, while watching or discussing a film that "included scenes of conflict between police and others, including racial minorities."

  • A fellow parking enforcement officer who overheard the comment told Skeie she was extremely offended; another officer also expressed disapproval.
  • Skeie later texted one of his colleagues to apologize.

The latest: Skeie filed a union grievance appealing his firing and has been back on the job since April.

What they're saying: The arbitrator who decided the case, Richard Eadie, ruled that terminating Skeie was "excessive" and didn't match how Seattle police had handled similar cases before.

  • While Eadie agreed that "Skeie's statement about lynching was extremely offensive," he noted that Skeie had no history of making similar offensive statements and had no other disciplinary history.
  • Eadie said Skeie should keep his job and receive a 30-day suspension instead.

The other side: Diaz told Axios last week that he fired Skeie because he thought Skeie "should have no place in my department, no place in my city."

  • "It's three simple things: Don't be racist, don't lie, don't commit a crime. I don't think that's hard," Diaz said.

What's next: Diaz said he wants the city to go to court to try to get the arbitrator's decision overturned.

  • Scott Lindsay, a spokesperson for the City Attorney's Office, declined to comment.
  • Skeie did not respond to Axios' attempts to contact him.

Between the lines: After Skeie was fired, city officials moved parking enforcement out of the police department, making it part of the city transportation department instead.

  • That could mean Diaz has less influence over what happens next with Skeie's case.

The big picture: Anne Levinson, a former Seattle judge and past police oversight official, said letting arbitrators overturn police discipline with "virtually no constraints" makes it hard to build "a culture of accountability."

  • "There is no reason for cities and counties to continue to agree to contracts and systems that do not ensure that the civil and constitutional rights of the public are upheld and that misconduct is reduced," Levinson told Axios in an email.

Flashback: Recently, Seattle fought back against an arbitrator's decision to rehire a police officer who had been fired for punching a handcuffed woman in the face.

  • In that case, officer Adley Shepherd lost his job after an appeals court sided with the city last year.
  • The state Legislature also has debated whether to rein in police arbitration and make it more difficult for arbitrators to overturn police discipline.
  • Those arbitration reforms have failed to advance, however, largely because of pushback from labor unions.

🗞 This is the first article by Axios Seattle's Melissa Santos! Subscribe to the Axios Seattle newsletter (launching soon).

Editor's note: The headline has been updated to note that the fired officer was a parking officer, and the story has been updated to include the scope of parking officers' authority.

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