Arbitrator's ruling on firing of Kent Police officer could come in May

Police union objects to July 2023 firing of Michael Morfoot by Chief Rafael Padilla

A decision by an independent arbitrator about whether Kent Police were justified in firing Officer Michael Morfoot isn’t expected until May, at the earliest.

Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla fired Morfoot in July 2023 for conduct unbecoming, a violation of the department’s code of conduct policy, for telling residents to seek “street justice,” as well as his six previous disciplinary actions or investigations in 21 years on the force.

Kent City Attorney Tammy White and representatives of the Kent Police Officers Association (union) met with an arbitrator for hearings on March 12 and 13. The union requested an arbitrator, on behalf of Morfoot, to the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission. That agency oversees public employee labor-management disputes, including the termination of police officers.

“At the conclusion of the hearing, the arbitrator asked each party to submit post-hearing briefs within 30 days,” White said in a March 27 email. “After the arbitrator receives the briefs from the city and the police union, he will review the briefs, the evidence submitted through the arbitration, and then render a decision sometime afterwards.”

White expects the decision to take time.

“We do not know a date by which the arbitrator will issue his decision, but I don’t suspect we’ll receive a decision until sometime in May, likely at the earliest,” White said.

The filing by the police union with the state commission came after Pat Fitzpatrick, city chief administrative officer, upheld that firing of Morfoot in October 2023, also after an appeal by the union.

Morfoot’s conduct in 2023 included telling The BLVD Apartments staff, during a response call to the complex on the West Hill after they reported trespassers, to exact “street justice; whoop their ass and swing a big bat,” rather than calling police for assistance, according to police records obtained by the Kent News through a public records request after Padilla investigated Morfoot’s actions.

Apartment staff with The BLVD filed a complaint with the police department, which led to an internal investigation of Morfoot. Because of the incident and six previous disciplinary actions or investigations against Morfoot during his 21 years with the department, Padilla fired him, according to police records.

Morfoot told Padilla, during his interview to investigate the incident, that his statements were made out of frustration because staff at the apartments had not taken adequate steps, in his opinion, to dissuade trespassers from reentering the property, according to the notice of discipline document written by Padilla. He also was frustrated by the state Legislature limiting officers in their ability to do their jobs. He claimed he was not intending to incite violence.

“Regardless of your intent, your willful and reckless statements evidence shockingly poor judgment on your part, which has been a recurrent problem in each of your prior disciplinary matters,” Padilla wrote in Morfoot’s disciplinary document. “Additionally, had staff at The BLVD Apartments or their temporary employees acted on your reckless statements, the city would have been exposed to potential civil liability, and you could have exposed yourself to potential criminal liability.”

Mike Sellars, executive director of the Washington state Public Employment Relations Commission, appointed Richard John Miller as arbitrator to the case Oct. 19, 2023.

Miller is an attorney based in Minnesota, according to his profile on the Public Employment Relations Commission website. He is a member of National Academy of Arbitrators and the American Arbitration Association. His profile says he has written grievance arbitration decisions on more than 100 law enforcement discipline cases across the nation.

In a 2019 interview with the Twin Cities Pioneer Press in Minnesota, Miller described the factors arbitrators consider:

• The department’s policies and the union’s contract.

• Whether the officer received training in the matter at hand.

• What kind of discipline a department imposed in previous, similar cases.

• The employee’s past discipline record.

“I often hear people saying, ‘Police officers, firefighters, teachers and nurses never get fired because they’re above the law,’ ” Miller said to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. “But that’s a fallacy.”

An arbitrator in November 2023, on appeal from the Seattle Police Officers Guild, upheld a Seattle Police firing of one officer but ruled a second officer was wrongly terminated, according to the Seattle Times. Both officers were fired after an October 2017 shooting at a fleeing vehicle.

Arbitrator Stanley H. Michelstetter didn’t order the one officer reinstated to her job, saying she’s likely moved on from her 2017 firing, but he ordered the city to pay back wages of more than $600,000, according to the Seattle Times.

That arbitrator was appointed by the state in May 2022 and held hearings in May and June of 2023 in Seattle, according to Public Employment Relations Commission documents before issuing his decision Nov. 29, 2023.

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