A labor arbitrator reinstated disgraced former Portland police officer Brian Hunzeker to the police force, according to a report filed Tuesday with the Oregon Employment Relations Board.
Hunzeker was the president of the Portland Police Association last spring when he was fired by mayor Ted Wheeler for leaking allegations that then Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty had been involved in a hit and run. The state-appointed arbitrator, Timothy Williams, directed the city to reinstate Hunzeker within 30 days and pay him lost wages minus a one-week suspension.
“An injustice can be done when a good police officer is terminated for political or other reasons not justified by the facts,” Williams wrote in his report. “It is this Arbitrator’s conclusion that the discharge of [Hunzeker] falls into that category. The facts do not justify the decision to terminate his employment.”
An internal affairs investigation concluded Hunzeker and two other officers – Ken Le and Kerri Ottoman – were responsible for leaking a report from a 911 caller incorrectly identifying Hardesty as the driver of a vehicle that rear-ended her at a Southwest Portland intersection.
According to the internal investigation, Hunzeker leaked the details to a reporter at the Oregonian/OregonLive, which published the allegations. Hunzeker admitted to investigators that he leaked the information in part as retaliation against Hardesty for speaking negatively about the bureau.
“There were many reasons Officer Hunzeker cited as the driving factors for why he shared the information and one of those factors, he admits, was in response to Commissioner Hardesty’s false allegation about officers setting fires during the civil unrest,” the internal affairs investigation reads.
Lovell initially recommended Hunzeker receive a 12-week suspension without pay but was overruled by Wheeler, who is also the police commissioner.
Hardesty did not respond to requests for comment.
Current union president Sgt. Aaron Schmautz applauded the decision to reinstate Hunzeker in a statement Thursday.
“After thoroughly considering all the facts and after objectively applying legislatively enacted police accountability standards, an arbitrator appointed by the State labor board has reinstated Officer Brian Hunzeker to his position as a police officer with the Portland Police Bureau,” Schmautz wrote.
Less than two weeks after the hit-and-run and accompanying leak, Hunzeker stepped down from his post as union president with little explanation. In his statement, he said only that he had made “a serious, isolated mistake related to the Police Bureau’s investigation into the alleged hit-and-run by Commissioner Hardesty.”
After briefly returning to patrol duty, Hunzeker was placed on administrative leave before eventually being fired.
Hunzeker did not respond to requests for comment.
“While I stand behind my decision in this case, I respect the legal process,” Wheeler said in a statement. “Meaningful accountability can take many forms, even when it may not look exactly the way we initially envisioned it. It is my sincere hope that we can all come together and find ways to bring healing for the harm caused and unity in ensuring it never happens again.”
Labor arbitrators are notorious for overturning police discipline. Portland police officer Ron Frashour was fired in 2010 after he shot Aaron Campbell in the back, killing the unarmed 25-year-old Black man. The city paid Campbell’s family a $1.2 million settlement but Frashour was reinstated in 2012 after an arbitrator reinstated him.
Arbitrators also tend to look past a lot of the noise around high-profile incidents like the one involving Hunzeker, according to an official familiar with police union arbitrations. Unions often make the argument that incidents like this one take on a life of their own and that if you subtract the outrage, the infraction starts to look smaller.
The Police Bureau declined to answer if decisions like this make it more difficult to maintain good order and discipline within the bureau.
In his report, state-appointed arbitrator Timothy Williams said that when Hunzeker violated the bureau’s dissemination of information directives, he was working in an inherently political role, not as an officer on the street.
“He represented his constituents in the ongoing debate related to holding police accountable, defunding police, etc. He made a significant mistake, but it was not related to his work as an officer,” Williams wrote.
Hunzeker’s discipline-free 20-year career has been “exemplary,” Williams noted.
Williams also said the city failed to support its claim that Hunzeker was responsible for causing “extreme harm,” siding instead with the union’s argument that there were multiple factors that harmed Hardesty, including leaks from other people who suffered much less severe discipline. For example, Ottoman, who leaked the same information to the group Coalition to Save PDX, only received a one-day suspension.
Several bureau officials and the civilians and officers on the Police Review Board disagreed with Williams, including Commander Kristina Jones of North Precinct, Assistant Chief Brian Ossenkop, Professional Standards Division Acting Captain Greg Pashley, and Independent Police Review Director Ross Caldwell. They all agreed with the internal affairs investigation findings.
State legislators passed a law in 2020 hoping to make it harder for arbitrators to overrule police leaders so long as several conditions are met. One of those conditions requires a police agency to have a discipline matrix, something the Portland Police Bureau didn’t have at the time Hunzeker was fired. In 2022, a matrix was included in the new police union contract.
Hardesty filed a lawsuit in Dec. 2021 seeking $3 million from the Portland Police Association and $1 million each from Hunzeker and Ottoman. The lawsuit also seeks $1 from the city of Portland and a declaration that it violated Hardesty’s right to be free from “race-based distinctions, discrimination or restrictions.”
“The leaks were made for the intent of discrediting Ms. Hardesty because of her race and in retaliation for decades of opposing race discrimination by the PPB against her fellow citizens,” her complaint reads.
That trial is scheduled to begin on Sept. 26, 2023.