A detective who sexually harassed a colleague while she was training him to handle sexual assault cases may be getting his job back.
An arbitrator found that John Nieder, a former detective at the Island County Sheriff’s Office, did commit the sexual harassment and that his testimony to the contrary was not credible.
Nevertheless, the arbitrator found that the sheriff’s decision to fire Nieder was too harsh and that the detective should be reinstated.
Nieder’s punishment for inappropriately touching the woman and making sexual comments will get 30 days without pay and a final warning letter in his file.
Undersheriff Kelly Mauck said he is frustrated by the decision and that it puts those in the administration in the position of having a deputy they can’t trust.
“I wouldn’t let someone I don’t trust borrow my car,” he said, “let alone hand him a badge and a gun.”
He said it’s crucial, especially in the current climate regarding police, that officers are trustworthy and above reproach.
The deputies’ guild chose to support Nieder in the appeal of his termination. Deputy Lane Campbell, who became guild president several months ago, conceded that many members aren’t happy with the outcome. Campbell said guild members followed the advice of the guild’s attorney, who pointed to a King County case in which a deputies’ guild declined to support a fired deputy in his appeal. The deputy sued the guild and won money and his job back.
“We would just as soon have an arbitrator make a decision than be sued for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars,” he said.
Nieder may not be back on the streets right away, however.
Before his firing last summer, Nieder was accused of assaulting a man during a traffic stop. An internal investigation was shelved because he was terminated. A criminal investigation didn’t yield a charge.
Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks asked the Skagit County Prosecutor’s Office to handle the case, but prosecutors there decided they couldn’t prove a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
The prosecutors pointed out that the alleged victim was “highly confrontational,” as documented in audio and video evidence; also, the alleged victim refused to cooperate, according to Banks. Sheriff Mark Brown said he plans to ask an outside agency to conduct an internal investigation of Nieder to see if he violated policy.
Gary Axon, the arbitrator, found that the county’s investigation was done in a fair and objective manner and that Nieder had forewarning and training regarding the fact that sexual harassment was forbidden. Axon noted in his opinion that Nieder, who worked at the department for 13 years, only had one disciplinary issue in his file. He received a letter of reprimand for speeding in 2012.
The detective unit is described as a jovial workplace where detectives razz each other and use sexually inappropriate humor “as a way to cope with the ugly things” they have to deal with. Nieder frequently swatted male colleagues on the buttocks but was asked to stop, which he did.
The female detective started work at the sheriff’s office in fall 2013. She testified that Nieder rubbed her shoulders, pulled her hair and made sexual innuendos that “went beyond the normal joking that was part of the detectives’ culture.”
She spoke to Mauck and the lead detective about her concerns. She told them she wanted to handle it by telling Nieder the behavior was unwelcome; they agreed.
She then spoke to Nieder and he apologized for his conduct, she claimed.
A month later, however, he again started touching her. In one incident, she pulled back and told him to stop it; another deputy testified that he witnessed the incident.
Nieder also made a sexual joke about peeping in her window, she said.
Nieder later testified that the physical touching and sexual communication was mutual. He said they never had “a bright-line conversation” in which she told him she didn’t like his actions and they needed to stop, the opinion states.
The arbitrator found that Nieder’s testimony was not credible while the woman’s was.
The woman told the lead detective and Mauck that she refused to work with him anymore. She said she was reluctant to report the problem and didn’t want Nieder to lose his job, the arbitrator wrote.
As a result, Brown appointed the county’s human resources director to conduct an investigation. She sustained three allegations against Nieder for inappropriate touching, making comments of a sexual nature and making disparaging comments. She recommended termination.
Brown fired him on July 21, 2014.
Nieder appealed and the arbitration hearings were held over three days in May. Axon’s ruling means that Nieder will get his back pay for the months he was off, except for the 30-day suspension.