A Prosser police officer’s firing for sexual misconduct is ruled ‘too extreme’

Former Prosser Officer Shane Hellyer was fired in 2018 but an arbitrator has ruled the city must rehire him and pay him back wages.
Former Prosser Officer Shane Hellyer was fired in 2018 but an arbitrator has ruled the city must rehire him and pay him back wages.

A former Prosser police officer could be back in uniform in Prosser about a year after being fired over allegations of sexual harassment.

Arbitrator Kenneth Latsch said a flawed investigation into the allegations against Shane Hellyer undercut the case against him.

This week’s decision reinstates Hellyer, 44, and requires the city to pay him back wages.

“I recognize that an investigation does not have to be ‘perfect’ to meet just cause standards, but in this case, it appears that the employer made its decision to terminate Mr. Hellyer without having a complete investigation record before it,” said Latsch.

“The discipline imposed in this case was too extreme and was not supported by the facts available to the employer when the disciplinary decision was made,” wrote Latsch, an arbitrator with 30 years of experience.

Russell Shjerven, the secretary-treasurer for Teamsters Local 839, said Hellyer wants to go back to work for the department. He still lives in Prosser, where he’s spent much of the past year working as a truck driver.

But it’s not certain when. The process can take up to 30 days, said Shjerven.

The city issued a two-sentence statement about the ruling, saying it is “discussing its options.”

The city’s public information officer, Rachel Shaw, was not able to comment about the possible options the city is considering.

Sexual misconduct

Police Chief Dave Giles fired the 15-year veteran in March 2018 after investigations by the department and the Benton County Sheriff’s Office.

The chief said he violated several rules including immoral conduct, using city equipment for personal use and failing to meet basic performance requirements.

The arbitrator spent much of his opinion focused on accusations that Hellyer acted inappropriately when he talked with a now-24-year-old woman.

According to a sheriff’s investigation, Hellyer and another officer found the woman drunk and pounding on her boyfriend’s door in December 2016.

She claimed Hellyer groped her after she was handcuffed and driven to the high school parking lot.

Hellyer testified he took the woman to the police station, where he suggested that she join a county anti-drug task force as an informant. He then got another call and drove her to her home.

In a second incident, he claims he was talking to her about the task force and she said he invited her to a soccer field for what she assumed would be a sexual encounter.

Benton County prosecutors reviewed the investigation and declined to file any criminal charges.

Police also collected statements from two other women with harassment claims. None of the other complaints were addressed in the arbitrator’s decision.

A flawed investigation

In his ruling, Latsch wrote that Prosser Sgt. Ed Blackburn often asked leading questions when the woman’s memory was faulty, adding that her story changed several times. He also indicated that she couldn’t remember crucial details.

shane hellyer.jpg
A short Prosser Police Department biography of Shane Hellyer posted to their Facebook page. Prosser Police Department

“In addition, it appears that much of the information gained by Sgt. Blackburn consisted of anecdotal accounts, rather than first-person narratives,” the arbitrator wrote. “It appears that he ‘helped’ interviewees by using leading questions when recollections were not clear.”

Union representatives presented information showing the department ignored evidence that may have exonerated Hellyer.

He also noted the woman at the center of the complaints never showed up for the hearing, so he had to rely on what she initially told investigators.

“Without clear evidence about Mr. Hellyer’s alleged misconduct at this date, the primary basis of this discipline cannot stand,” he wrote. “At best, the employer has presented a version of events that may have occurred, but the union presented equally plausible explanations.”

While other actions could result in discipline, they appeared more serious because of the initial complaint, Latsch wrote.

He also noted Hellyer had no other serious discipline actions before this case.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.