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Fired Centralia Police Officer Reinstated With Back Pay

The former Centralia police officer accused of excessively Tasing people will get his job back and is entitled to retroactive pay, an arbitrator ruled Tuesday.

The department fired Phillip Reynolds after repeated discipline and warnings for a long list of alleged policy violations.

Reynolds appealed his March 2012 termination, arguing the department did not have just cause to fire him, which prompted a two-year legal battle that came to an end this week.

The arbitrator who oversaw the hearing, Kenneth James Latsch, issued his decision Tuesday.

The monetary amount of retroactive pay and benefits Reynolds will receive was unclear as of Wednesday. It is also unknown whether or not Reynolds will choose to return to work or resign after receiving the back pay.

An attempt by The Chronicle to contact Reynolds through his father, Bradd Reynolds, for comment was unsuccessful.

Reynolds was the subject of several internal investigations over the course of his six years working for the city. 

A 2011 investigation into Reynolds’ frequent use of his Taser found he excessively used it on multiple people, many of whom were involved in minor, non-violent offenses, for extended periods of time — sometimes up to 30 seconds. The investigation also found he was dishonest in his police reports about the circumstances of using the Taser.

As a result, Reynolds was suspended for two weeks without pay. He returned to duty and was ordered to undergo additional training.

The 2011 suspension, however, was not Reynolds’ first warning about his behavior. By that point, Reynolds had already received multiple verbal and written warnings about other policy violations including reckless behavior, failing to show up for trial and arresting someone without probable cause.

In the police chief’s letter of reprimand to Reynolds, dated July 12, 2011, it stated: “This is truly the final opportunity for you to make some fundamental changes … Future violations of departmental policy will be dealt with in the most severe terms and may result in your dismissal from employment.”

Despite that warning, Reynolds’ attitude reportedly grew worse in 2011. According to a legal brief submitted to the arbitrator by the city defending the termination, Reynolds spent the large majority of his shift hiding out, avoiding responding to calls or interacting with his coworkers and supervisors.

In January 2012, the administration launched another internal investigation against Reynolds and found he violated eight additional policies, including insubordination, cooperation with other employees and failing to aid other officers. He then was fired.

At the time of his termination, Teamsters Union Local 252, which represented Reynolds, was still in the process of appealing his 2011 two-week unpaid suspension for the excessive use of force.

The arbitrator’s ruling on Tuesday was two pronged: Latsch upheld the two-week suspension, concluding “there is clear evidence that Mr. Reynolds knew that his employment with the Centralia Police Department was in a precarious position. He had already been subject to a number of disciplinary measures.”

For the termination, however, Latsch ruled the opposite.

The final investigation started after an incident on Jan. 1, 2012, in which Sgt. Carl Buster confronted Reynolds about not backing up his coworkers. Reynolds asked for his union representative and refused to answer Buster’s questions.

The union argued to the arbitrator that the investigation into the confrontation stemmed from the administration accusing Reynolds of “insubordination” by invoking his right for a union representative.

The arbitrator concurred. According to Latsch’s decision:  “I must agree with the union that it appears that the Employer’s main focus … revolved around Mr. Reynolds’ refusal to answer Sergeant Buster’s questions without union representation present. Once that matter had to be set aside because Mr. Reynolds was asserting a statutory collective bargaining right, the employer attempted to use other minor events as a sufficient basis to terminate Mr. Reynolds from employment. 

“The events describe do not warrant such an extreme form of discipline, and the termination cannot stand,” he wrote.

Latsch’s decision is final, and no further appeal can be made.

In a departmentwide email, which was also forwarded to the city council Wednesday afternoon, Centralia Police Chief Bob Berg wrote that “Officer Reynolds will be reinstated as a police officer for the City of Centralia. Back pay and benefits will be calculated and awarded. The specific return to duty date has yet to be finalized.”

While The Chronicle previously reported Reynolds would receive about $150,000 in retroactive pay, Berg said Wednesday that figure may not be correct. 

There is a period of nine to 11 months of the appeals process in which Reynolds is not eligible for back pay, he said. The $150,000 estimate also did not account for the cost of benefits, including medical, that Reynolds is also entitled to receive back payments on.

Regardless of the arbitrator’s decision, Berg said Wednesday he still stands by his choice to fire Reynolds.

“I made the decision at the time based of the information I had,” Berg said, later adding: “While I will abide by the decisions of the arbitrator, it does not change the decision I would have made, nor am I second guessing that decision.”

The city spent about $80,000, primarily in legal fees, in defending the department’s decision to terminate Reynolds. The city will also have to pay half of the arbitrator’s bill of $9,076 for his nine days of work associated with overseeing the decision.