City manager overturns police chief, reinstates fired VPD officer
Originally published June 9, 2011 at 4:11 p.m., updated June 9, 2011 at 6:51 p.m.
Vancouver City Manager Eric Holmes on Thursday reversed a decision by his police chief and reinstated an officer fired earlier this year.
Police Chief Cliff Cook fired Officer Brian Billingsley in March on nine counts of department violations uncovered during an ongoing investigation of the relationship between former Vancouver Police Department Officer Erik McGarrity and a former confidential informant, Tegan Rushworth.
Billingsley, 38, will return to work today, Cook said. Holmes sustained four of the policy violations, giving Billingsley a 28-day unpaid suspension. He will be given back pay for the remainder of the time he was not on duty.
Though the city manager favored lighter discipline, he included harsh words for Billingsley in his reinstatement letter.
“These failings, for which you are solely responsible, are inexcusable and strike at the heart of the city’s efforts to build and maintain a credible, professional police force in our community,” Holmes wrote in the eight-page document.
The reinstatement is the first case under a union agreement approved in 2010 that gives the city manager the final say in the termination of police employees; a call that before rested in the hands of the police chief alone.
Under the new rules, an officer can appeal his or her termination to a four-person Discipline Review Board, which then gives a recommendation to the city manager.
The process came as part of recommendations from a 2009 outside review by consultants, who drafted numerous recommendations on ways to repair fractures in the city’s police department.
“I took into account the recommendations of the (Discipline Review Board), did a review of the internal affairs file and looked at the disciplinary guide, and reached a conclusion to reinstate,” Holmes said.
Though his decision ran counter to the one made by his police chief, Holmes said he places strong trust in Cook.
“Although our decisions were different on this case, I appreciate Chief Cook’s support of this extended review process and he continues to have my full support,” he said.
Billingsley’s discipline comes as part of a nearly two-year investigation surrounding the relationship of McGarrity and Rushworth, 25, a 2003 Fort Vancouver Rodeo Queen-turned-felon who aided McGarrity in several low-level drug cases. McGarrity resigned in November over an alleged inappropriate sexual relationship with Rushworth.
Two other officers remain under investigation in the case; Cook said Thursday the internal affairs investigation will be finished by early fall.
Holmes cleared Billingsley of several serious policy violations, including misconduct and making false statements.
In his termination letter, Cook said Billingsley made false statements to Washington State Patrol investigators about whether he knew if Rushworth and McGarrity had a personal relationship between July and December 2009. Cook alleged that Billingsley withheld information intentionally to protect McGarrity and himself. Billingsley had protested that allegation, and Holmes overturned the violation, along with four others.
Holmes, however, did say that the officer should have been more forthcoming with state patrol officers, writing it was clear that Billingsley had some knowledge of a relationship between McGarrity and his informant and could have offered more information than he did.
Holmes said that Billingsley — a nine year veteran of the VPD force with no prior history of discipline — did violate policies relating to using informants, neglect of duty, duty to report and unbecoming conduct.
He upheld Cook’s findings that Billingsley did not reopen a confidential informant file for Rushworth when he began working with her, nor did he verify her credibility with other officers.
The chief said Billingsley did not follow up on a charge that Rushworth had stolen a vehicle, despite his status as the sole investigator of auto theft. Billingsley neglected his duties when he had direct contact with Rushworth in December 2009, and, against policy, did not check to see if she was wanted by authorities. (At the time, Rushworth had no-bail warrants out for her arrest).
Cook said Thursday that he respects Holmes’ decision to bring Billingsley back. The new process creates more transparency in the police department, he said.
“It brought an additional step to the process that I believe the officers and police guild believe is beneficial,” Cook said. “It provides another opportunity for the public to understand how decisions are made.”
Vancouver Police Officers Guild President Jeff Kipp said Thursday afternoon that he had not read the entire reinstatement letter yet, but that he felt Holmes made the right decision.
“We’re obviously pleased with that — I think the system worked,” Kipp said. “My compliments certainly go to the city manager for taking this process seriously, taking the time to look at the case, and the facts that are there, and come to the conclusion that we did early on as well.”
He said he wasn’t sure yet if Billingsley’s violations warranted a full 28-day suspension. The union may appeal the suspension to a state arbitrator.
“He’s a very good officer,” Kipp said. “Some mistakes were made, he owned up to those. We’re looking forward to having Brian back.”
Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542, andrea.damewood//www.twitter.com/col_cityhall