Washougal challenges police officer's reinstatement

Robert Ritchie was convicted of assault of mentally ill man

By Paris Achen, Columbian courts reporter

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The city of Washougal has challenged a decision by an arbitrator to reinstate a police officer convicted in March of assaulting a mentally ill man restrained in the back of his patrol car in July 2012.

Police officer Robert E. Ritchie was terminated from his job in September 2012 for violating the Washougal Police Department's use of force policy when he repeatedly punched Tyler Lampman, 26, after Lampman spat on him.

Arbitrator Ronald L. Miller concluded on Aug. 16 that termination was too harsh a punishment for Ritchie, given the officer's 28 years of service with the department. He ordered that the city reinstate Ritchie to his job on Sept. 9.

Instead of termination, Ritchie's year without employment and pay -- the equivalent of a one-year disciplinary suspension -- would suffice as punishment for the officer's misconduct, Miller said.

"The city disagrees with the arbitrator's decision," said Mayor Sean Guard in a statement. "Patrol officers can reasonably be expected to obey the laws that they are enforcing against others. It is the city's position that conviction of a crime in the course of Mr. Ritchie's duties is just cause for termination."

The city plans to place Ritchie on paid administrative leave, beginning Sept. 9, until the dispute is resolved, said Washougal police Chief Ron Mitchell.

Lampman, who has schizophrenia, was arrested July 1, 2012, on suspicion of domestic violence against his mother and brother. His mother said he hadn't been taking his medications.

Washougal police officers placed Lampman in Ritchie's patrol car to be transported to jail. When Ritchie got into the driver's seat, Lampman began banging his head against the transparent thermoplastic screen between the front and back seats.

Concerned about Lampman's safety, Ritchie said, he got out of the vehicle and opened the door to the back passenger seat to try to stop Lampman from hurting himself. He placed his hands on Lampman's chest to prevent him from banging his head, and Lampman spat on his face. Ritchie responded by punching Lampman in the face two times, while Lampman was still handcuffed and restrained in a seat belt.

The city terminated Ritchie on Sept. 12, 2012, after an internal and an external investigation found, respectively, that Ritchie had violated department's use of force policy and the law.

Ritchie appealed his termination to an arbitrator, per his union's collective bargaining contract.

The Washougal Police Officers Association of nearly 20 members voted in favor of the appeal and provided Ritchie with Portland attorney Jaime Goldberg to represent him in his appeal. Goldberg also defended Ritchie against the criminal charge.

Meanwhile, Ritchie's criminal charge worked its way through the justice system. Clark County District Court Judge Sonya Langsdorf convicted him in March of gross-misdemeanor fourth-degree assault for striking Lampman. He was sentenced to two days of house arrest, a $100 fine and two years of bench probation.

"He made a human error," Goldberg said. "That doesn't justify abandonment by the department after 28 years."

In August, the labor dispute went to arbitration. Miller acknowledged that Ritchie had engaged in misconduct but said that his long record as a police officer should be considered as a whole.

Miller wrote that it's "well-established at arbitration that long service with an employer, particularly if unblemished, is an important mitigating factor in favor of an employee whose employment has been terminated." Miller claimed that Ritchie had no prior discipline during his career.

In fact, Ritchie's record as an officer before the July 2012 assault was not "unblemished."

He was demoted from the rank of sergeant in 2004 for shooting Olga Rybak 27 times with an electronic Taser gun in August 2003. The department determined he used excessive force while arresting the woman, who was accused of failing to comply with dog regulations. It's unclear whether the arbitrator knew about or considered the earlier discipline.

The city filed a petition on Aug. 29 in Clark County Superior Court to challenge the arbitrator's decision. The court hearing on the dispute is set for Oct. 4.

Guard said keeping Ritchie on the police force would jeopardize the public's sense of security and create a liability for the city. Striking a man in handcuffs "doesn't fly," he said. He said he would urge local legislators to pass a law that would call for the termination of any police officer who breaks the law.

"(The city) agreed in the collective bargaining agreement these disputes should go to arbitration," Goldberg said. "We went through all the procedures. Now, they don't like the decision."

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551; http://twitter.com/Col_Courts; http://facebook.com/ColTrends; paris.achen@columbian.com