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July 21st, 2010 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Drunken Disparities

Should public-safety officers who drink and drive always lose their badge?

     
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Candy Vaughan called her friend in a panic on July 10, 2009. Vaughan and her boyfriend, Christopher Maestas, were in the Polk County town of Independence, and Vaughan was scared for her life.

Vaughan was still recovering from injuries suffered in a car crash two months before in which Maestas was convicted of drunken driving. Now she called her friend to say Maestas was drinking again in the car, according to police records.

It’s unclear if Vaughan was in the car when she called, but after her friend went to the police station, an officer found Maestas passed out in a park at the wheel of his 1998 Dodge pickup with a quarter-full bottle of Sutter Home wine on the floor. A blood test later showed 0.25 percent alcohol—more than three times Oregon’s legal limit.

Maestas pleaded guilty to DUII in August 2009, his third DUII conviction. He received a six-month suspended jail sentence and lost his license for three years. But that didn’t end the matter, because Maestas, 49, was also a former prison guard still licensed by the state as a corrections officer.

Now Maestas and other public-safety officials recently busted for drunken driving are prompting the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training to reassess how it handles cases in which cops, firefighters, emergency dispatchers and jail guards are caught driving under the influence. The board in April stripped Maestas’ certification for life, after the agency’s corrections policy committee noted he was driving with a suspended license, had multiple priors and had allegedly tried to blame his girlfriend for his arrest.

On Thursday, July 22, DPSST’s 24-member board will debate whether to create an organized system for meting out discipline when any of the state’s 35,000 certified public-safety officials are caught wasted behind the wheel.

It’s not known how many of DPSST’s 208 pending discipline cases involve DUIIs, says Eriks Gabliks, the agency’s director. But he says the board seems to be handling DUII cases more often in the past year.

Until now, the agency’s action has varied depending on the facts of each case. But Maestas and three other recent cases—all with different results—have prompted DPSST board member Kelly Bach to suggest creating a matrix for DUII discipline.

Gabliks says a matrix for DUIIs could lead to treating all discipline with a cookie-cutter approach. The board currently votes to revoke an officer’s certification for a given amount of time, or to let them keep their job.

“That takes away, in a sense, that person’s chance to have their case heard by their peers,” Gabliks says. “You have to have a barometer between people who need help and people who lose their certification.”

Kurt Swensen, a drug-and-alcohol counselor who also works as a probation officer for Washington County, doubts a matrix is the right approach.

“It’s like saying you have cancer, you need treatment, and this is the only thing that works,” Swensen says. “Every single one of these needs to be looked at case by case.”

Consider these cases:

  • As previously reported at wweek.com, on Feb. 6, 2009, Portland Police Officer Brian Hubbard crashed his silver Chrysler into a ditch in rural Washington County. He denied he’d been drinking but had a near-empty bottle of Smirnoff in the car. Hubbard blew a 0.25 and was convicted of DUII and reckless driving.

    DPSST’s police policy committee recommended unanimously in August 2009 that Hubbard keep his certification. According to minutes from the meeting, the committee cited Hubbard’s “great record,” his “apologetic attitude” and the support he had from then-Chief Rosie Sizer. The full DPSST board agreed with the committee’s decision, and Hubbard kept his badge.

  • On May 24, 2009, Lebanon Police Department dispatcher Edith Hernandez was arrested for her second DUII in three years. She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a one-year license suspension and 18 months’ probation.

    DPSST’s telecommunications policy committee voted 6-1 on Feb. 4 to recommend stripping Hernandez’s certification for at least five years, citing the fact it was her second offense and she was late in reporting the arrest to her boss. The full DPSST board has not yet voted on a final action.

  • In December 2009, DPSST learned former West Linn Police Officer Renee McClintock had been convicted of DUII, reckless endangerment and reckless driving in 2005. Moreover, DPSST records indicate McClintock lied about her status as a cop (she had resigned in 1998) in order to gain favor and had later repeatedly violated probation.

    Nonetheless, the police policy committee on Feb. 18 voted 6-4 to recommend McClintock keep her police certification. Minutes from the meeting show the committee considered that McClintock hasn’t worked for many years and that she claims to be sober. The full DPSST board agreed and allowed McClintock to retain her certification.

 
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