An independent arbitrator is scheduled to decide next year whether Kent Police were justified in firing Officer Michael Morfoot.
The arbitration hearing is currently scheduled for March 12-13, 2024, according to a Dec. 7 email from Kent City Attorney Tammy White.
The Kent Police Officers Association (union) filed a request for appointment of 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.
That filing came after Pat Fitzpatrick, city chief administrative officer, in October upheld Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla’s decision to fire Morfoot in July for conduct unbecoming, a violation of the department’s code of conduct policy.
The conduct included Morfoot 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 Reporter 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 to the case Oct. 19.
“Kent Police Officers Association filed a request for appointment of an arbitrator from the law enforcement arbitrator roster,” Sellars said in an email. “The roster of private arbitrators is maintained by PERC (the commission) under RCW (revised code of Washington) 41.58.070, and PERC makes the appointment of the arbitrator on a rotating alphabetical basis.”
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.
The Kent Police union and the city of Kent will present evidence and make their case in front of Miller, who will decide whether there was just cause to fire Morfoot.
In a 2019 interview with the Twin Cities Pioneer Press in Minnesota, White 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.”
Seattle Police case
Two Seattle Police officers, fired in 2017 after their actions during an October 2017 shooting at a fleeing vehicle, just recently received rulings from an arbitrator in Wisconsin, according to the Dec. 8 Seattle Times. The arbitrator upheld the firing of one of the officers but ruled the other officer was wrongly terminated.
The Seattle Police Officers Guild filed a request with the state Public Employment Relations Commission for the hearing before an arbitrator.
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.