Jul 6, 2022 - News

Seattle Police Dept. asks court to refire parking officer who "advocated lynching"

Illustration of a row of gavels, with all but one of them transparent.
Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

The Seattle Police Department is seeking a judge's help to terminate a parking enforcement officer who made a comment endorsing lynching.

  • Jonathan Skeie was already fired in early 2021 over his statement — but he is now back at work after being reinstated by an arbitrator.

Flashback: Interim Seattle police chief Adrian Diaz fired Skeie last year after Skeie said, "I don't understand why we can't just bring back lynching," or a very similar statement, according to internal investigation files submitted in court.

  • Skeie made the comment in front of two other parking enforcement officers while working in the office in June 2020, during the height of the city's Black Lives Matter protests, the documents say.

Driving the news: The police department and the city filed a petition in King County Superior Court last week, asking a judge to reverse the January arbitration decision that gave Skeie his job back.

  • The city's petition argues that arbitrator Richard Eadie's decision was "erroneous" and violates the state's anti-discrimination and anti-harassment law.
  • In that January arbitration order, Eadie ruled that the police department's termination of Skeie was "excessive" and didn't match how similar cases had been handled before.
  • Skeie received a 30-day suspension, but was reinstated and has been back on the job since April.

Why it matters: The police department and city say the arbitrator's decision to rehire Skeie — who was fired for race-based harassment — sends a damaging message that racism from city employees will go unpunished.

  • The case also tests the city's ability to challenge the determinations of arbitrators, who some Seattle and Washington state officials have argued shouldn't be able to easily overturn police chiefs' disciplinary actions.

Of note: Although Skeie was a civilian employee in the police department at the time of his firing, he — along with the rest of Seattle's parking enforcement division — has since been moved to the city transportation department.

Context: According to the city's internal investigation, Skeie made the lynching comment in the office while discussing the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, as well as the Ava DuVernay documentary "13th," which focuses on racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

  • In a follow-up interview with an investigator, Skeie said he didn't understand the racial connotations of the word "lynching" and thought the term had the same meaning as "hanging" or capital punishment.
  • Skeie said he was trying to convey his frustration and anger about how people arrested at the protests were only given "a slap on the wrist," according to the investigator's report.

What they're saying: The police department and city say that context makes Skeie's comment all the more offensive.

  • In their court filing, the police department and city say: "It cannot be ignored that Mr. Skeie's racist statement advocated 'lynching,' not in the abstract, but to be used against Black Lives Matter protesters."
  • They argue that the arbitrator's award placed too much emphasis on Skeie's previously unblemished disciplinary record, as well as how he apologized by text afterward to a colleague.
  • In a statement to Axios, a spokesperson for Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said, “Mayor Harrell believes the language and behavior of employees should reflect the inclusive values of our city, so Seattle communities trust that we are here to serve and support them.”

The other side: In a brief filed with the arbitrator, the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers' Guild wrote that Diaz's firing of Skeie "was deeply inconsistent and disparate in relation to his lax approach to discipline for other more serious offenses."

  • A lawyer representing Skeie and the parking officers' guild didn't respond to messages from Axios.
  • When reached by email, Eadie, the arbitrator, declined to comment, citing the pending court case.

What's next: The city is asking the judge to fire Skeie again and rule that the arbitrator's decision violated state law.

  • The judge could take action on the case later this month.
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