Soldotna, police union at odds over cop’s firing

The city of Soldotna is engaged in a legal struggle with the union representing its police officers over whether it unfairly fired a police officer in 2014.

The city dismissed patrol officer Victor Dillon after a use-of-force incident in February 2014 in which he pulled a man out of his car during a traffic stop. Dillon, who had worked for the police department since 2007, said his use of force was reasonable because the man was argumentative and verbally vulgar toward him during the stop and that he resisted arrest.

After the city dismissed him, Dillon filed a grievance, saying his dismissal violated the city’s collective bargaining agreement with the union representing the police officers. The union and the city attempted to work out their disagreement with an arbitrator beginning in December 2014.

Dillon had responded to a report of a potentially drunk driver from a local tavern and engaged him in a traffic stop, according to the arbitrator’s documents. Dillon checked the driver’s insurance and vehicle registration and screened him for intoxication as more officers arrived on scene. The driver was argumentative toward Dillon, according to the documents.

“At one point, Grievant (Dillon) instructed the driver to ‘Shut his mouth,’ the driver said, ‘No, shut your (expletive) mouth,’” the arbitrator’s opinion states. “During the course of this exchange the driver became physically demonstrative, pointing his finger out the window at the Grievant. Grievant responded, ‘We’re done,’ reached in and forcibly removed the driver from the vehicle, and … took him to the pavement instructing him to stop resisting and that he was under arrest.”

The driver protested that Dillon had no right to pull him out of his car and that he was injured in the process, threatening to sue. The driver did have blood on his face and was taken to the hospital for treatment, according to the arbitrator’s opinion.

Dillon’s supervisor reported a concern that he had not charged the driver with resisting arrest. After Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik reviewed the dash cam footage from Dillon’s car, he initiated a formal administrative review against him, ending in Dillon’s termination.

The city states that Dillon’s use of force was inappropriate, that his behavior was unbecoming of an officer and that he lied on his report to the police department. Dillon was disciplined three times over the course of his employment with the police department and that he continued “to engage in egregious conduct that causes harm to private citizens and erodes the public trust in the SPD.”

Dillon was involved in three other incidents during his employment, one of which resulted in 30 hours of suspension for excessive use of force involving his patrol car. At the same time, Dillon received good performance reviews at the police department and numerous letters of appreciation and awards and completed training assignments, according to the documents.

The Public Safety Employees Association contends that the city failed to prove that Dillon’s use of force was unreasonable because the man was hostile toward all the officers on scene as well as hospital staff while he was being treated.

The union also holds that Dillon did not lie on his reports — when he failed to include the detail that the driver’s hand came up toward his face, it was because he only noticed it when he saw the dash cam video, at which point he could no longer add the detail to the report because it was under review, according to the arbitrator’s report.

“The Union … argues that dishonesty is defined as intent to deceive, intentional deception and there is no proof Grievant sought to deceive anyone,” the arbitrator’s opinion states.

The arbitrator, a Boise, Idaho-based attorney named Dean A. Martin, offered the opinion that the city was unjustified in firing Dillon and wrote that he should be hired back with all benefits, including back pay and seniority.

Martin also argued that several other similar incidents had occurred in the Soldotna Police Department but those officers had not been disciplined, making this a special treatment case.

“I find The City’s arguments on how things could have gone better reasonable; but, as the Union argues, teachable,” Martin wrote.

He also wrote that Dillon did not violate the truthfulness policy because he attempted to correct his report but could not because the administrative review was underway.

As the losing party, the city was saddled with the arbitrator’s fees and expenses. The city appealed the decision in September, asking for a vacation of the decision and for the union to cover the expenses. Soldotna City Manager Mark Dixson said he did not have an exact figure on the cost to the city for the arbitrator. He said the parties are trying to determine a figure for a settlement and for the arbitrator’s award itself.

“We’re trying to just resolve this so the police officer can go on his merry way and the city can go on our merry way,” Dixson said. “Right now, we’re trying to go to mediation so we can resolve it.”

Dixson said the union’s allegation that the Soldotna Police Department does not provide adequate training is untrue. He also said he does not know of any cases of other officers not being disciplined after committing similar use-of-force violations.

He said the decision to dismiss Dillon was entirely based on the violations of the city’s policies. Although the driver involved threatened to sue, the city has never heard from him nor has it engaged in any litigation with him, Dixson said.

The city’s attorneys allege that Martin’s awards “were the result of gross error, and exceeded the arbitrator’s authority under the collective bargaining agreement.”

The Public Safety Employees Association filed an answer to the complaint in October, asking for the court to dismiss the complaint and assign all costs, fees, disbursements and expenses to the city.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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