Reading her ruling overturning the firing of Humboldt County Sheriff's Sgt. Jason Daniels, it's clear arbitrator Bonnie Prouty Castrey considered many things ("Embedded in the Culture," March 31). She reviewed the pertinent sheriff's office policies and procedures, as well as the county's sexual harassment policy, considered Daniels' "many awards" and "record of accomplishments." She took into account the "culture" of the department and weighed Daniels' claim that he meant "no malice" when he shared texts with peers and subordinates that included racist and sexual epithets as a way to "decompress and cope" with on-the-job stress, noting Daniels said he "would have apologized" if he'd known anyone took offense. She even went so far as to take into account that other officers trusted Daniels to "have their back," though it's left unclear if any of these trusting officers were women or people of color.
But what's glaringly absent from the laundry list of things that weighed into Castrey's 24-page opinion is a single mention of the public trust or interest. Nowhere in the document does the arbitrator consider the impact on the public trust of reinstating an officer accused of (and acquitted at trial) of committing sexual assault on duty and who admitted to sharing text messages that contained words like "nigger, dot head, fag, bitch, cunt, slut and whore." If Castrey took into account what impact this might have on a woman or a person of color being detained by Daniels after she gave him his badge back, she didn't think it important enough to mention.
That's a huge problem. And one we never would have known about without going to court.
Amid the national discussion of police reform, activists and police chiefs alike have pointed to arbitrators as sticking points in efforts to hold problematic officers accountable. A groundbreaking study from Loyola University Chicago School of Law even confirmed the notion, finding that more often than not, arbitrators ruled in favor of accused officers. It was with that in mind that the Journal began asking questions last year about Daniels, noting that the sergeant, who the county announced had been fired back in 2014 while facing criminal sexual assault charges, was included on a list of current county employees. Our reporting found that while the county had spent nearly $250,000 trying to uphold Daniels' firing, an arbitrator had reinstated his employment. It also found that though he isn't currently working, he's holding one of the sheriff's office's 17 sergeant positions on paper and is owed years of back pay. But when we asked for the arbitrator's ruling in the case, the county refused, saying the responsive records were "exempt from disclosure" by law.
With the help of attorney Paul Nicholas Boylan, the Journal then took the county to court, arguing the county's own Merit System Rules — which govern employee disciplinary procedures — require the report be made public. Both the county and the Journal ultimately agreed to give the arbitrator's ruling to a judge to review behind closed doors and to let them decide whether or not the document should be public. On March 21, we did just that and Judge Timothy Canning ruled in the Journal's favor, ordering the county to release the document.
The ruling itself is illuminating, a local illustration of the data points that indicate arbitrators often go to great lengths to shield officers from discipline. In this case, in addition to the grade-school logic of finding the county couldn't hold a police supervisor accountable for admittedly violating multiple policies because other people were doing it, too, and using sanitizing language — referring to texts with racist, sexist and homophobic epithets as "racially charged," "off-color" and "sexual joking." Castrey also minimizes a female deputy's testimony that Daniels' texts made her uncomfortable but she did not report them for fear she wouldn't be believed and it would make her professional life "difficult," by pointing out that same deputy had once made sexually inappropriate comments to colleagues, as if the only true victims are perfect people beyond reproach.
But the ruling also leaves many, many questions. For all the talk of the vile text exchanges, we have not seen them — only other people's characterizations of them and lists of some of the words included. And while we vehemently disagree with Castrey's take that because the sheriff's office didn't conduct a far-reaching investigation into others who sent and received offensive text messages, it was wrong to hold Daniels accountable for his part in the exchanges, we do want to know why it appears others may have not been held to account for participating in racist, sexist and homophobic exchanges. As such, we're asking for more records, wanting to follow the paper trail wherever it leads. And if needed, we'll go back to court.
Transparency is in the public interest, a key to building and holding public trust. And while those things might not have mattered to Castrey, they matter a lot to us.