He stopped a massive fraud, but this officer says pink shoes kept him from promotion

He stopped a massive fraud, but this officer says pink shoes kept him from promotion

Lakewood police Officer Jeremy Vahle, seen in this 2013 file photo, is suing the city of Lakewood because he has not been promoted to sergeant after 13 years in the Police Department. Courtesy of Lakewood Police Department

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — The police officer who uncovered Skeeter Manos’ theft from the families of the four slain Lakewood police officers can’t get promoted to sergeant, and now he’s suing the city over it.

Officer Jeremy Vahle filed the lawsuit Monday in Pierce County Superior Court against the city of Lakewood, seeking monetary damages, a court order forcing the city to comply with its civil-service laws and policies, and a promotion to sergeant.

The Lakewood police union president alleges that Chief Mike Zaro has misused civil-service rules to deny him a promotion in part because he wore pink shoes to work.

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City spokeswoman Brynn Grimley gave a short statement, saying, “The city stands behind its sergeant-selection process and the resulting promotions.” No further comment was offered.

Vahle repeatedly was passed over for promotion to sergeant by people who ranked lower than him on the city’s civil service list since January 2016, his lawsuit states, despite city code requiring that only the top three people on each list be considered.

A city investigation also found that Zaro admitted to denying Vahle a promotion in part because he wore pink shoes while trying to negotiate a uniform allowance to cover the cost of work boots, the suit states.

“Civil service has a purpose,” said Vahle’s attorney, Joan Mell. “You don’t want ‘yes’ people, especially in law enforcement, for all the reasons we’re looking at right now.”

Vahle, a 13-year-officer, has been president of the Lakewood Police Independent Guild since 2015.

The guild’s contract with the city says that all promotions will be made in compliance with the city’s civil-service rules. Those rules specify a “rule of three” be used to fill positions, meaning that three eligible people, or 15 percent of the eligible people who apply, whichever number is greater, are passed on to hiring managers for consideration.

Lakewood’s civil-service secretary, Mary Pandrea, said a “rule of five” was in effect when she announced the application process opened for sergeant in September 2015, the lawsuit states. Vahle contends that violated the city’s civil service rules.

There were eight eligible candidates for promotion to sergeant that the civil service commission certified in January 2016. The names of all eightwere sent to Zaro, the lawsuit states, instead of the three mandated by city code.

Vahle ranked second on the merit-standards list, the suit states, but the people ranked first, third, fifth, sixth and seventh were promoted to sergeant from that list over the next eight months instead of him.

Vahle was the police officer who disclosed then-officer Manos' 2012 theft of $112,000 from the memorial fund set up for the families of the four police officers killed at a Parkland coffee shop in 2009. He contends his reporting of Manos' behavior got him crossways with Zaro, and he filed a whistleblower retaliation complaint in September 2016, alleging that the chief continually bypassed him for promotion.

Zaro told the city’s investigator that Vahle’s wearing of pink shoes for a day and a half of day-shift patrol was one of the reasons why he would not promote him, the suit states.

The wearing of pink shoes with his uniform was a protected act during bargaining negotiations, Mell said.

Vahle was not found to have been bypassed for promotion because he was a whistleblower, but the city’s human resources director, Mary McDougal, found that Zaro said Vahle had “baggage” because he wore pink shoes to work, the suit said. City Manager John Caulfield concurred with McDougal’s findings.

Vahle appealed his lack of promotion to both the civil service commission and the City Council, but nothing was changed, the suit states.

A second round of sergeant applications opened in August, for which Vahle again applied. He scored the highest on the written examination, the suit states, but was second to the bottom on the work-performance score, which included grades from sergeants promoted by Zaro over Vahle.

“Absent judicial intervention, Lakewood will continue to promote officers for reasons other than merit because Chief Zaro will be permitted to select from 71.4 percent of the eligible candidates rather than the top candidate or a candidate ranked above 25 percent of the eligible candidates,” the lawsuit states.