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Monday, March 17, 2014 01:28 pm

Deputy’s discipline overturned

Arbitrator finds disparate treatment

An arbitrator has found that the Sangamon County sheriff’s office metes out harsher discipline to female deputies than male employees.

The finding comes in the case of Sherry Waldron, a former Sangamon County sheriff’s deputy terminated in 2012 for allegedly stealing plants from a Sherman park while on duty. Shortly after she was acquitted of misdemeanor theft charges, Waldron was caught shoplifting at Schnuck’s on Sangamon Avenue last May and subsequently pleaded guilty to theft charges last fall.

Click here to read the arbitrator's ruling.

Dennis P. McGilligan, the arbitrator, found that the department couldn’t prove that Waldron had stolen the plants but that she had broken department rules and brought the department into disrepute. While acknowledging that Waldron had admitted to shoplifting, McGilligan ruled that the theft wasn’t sufficient to fire a deputy with an otherwise clean record during her nearly ten years on the force. He ordered that Waldron be suspended without pay for 90 days and that the department pay back wages and benefits for time off work in excess of 90 days.

“I was floored,” said sheriff Neil Williamson. “I haven’t really had an opportunity to speak with any attorneys or the county administrator to see where we want to go with this.”

Appealing the arbitrator’s decision in court is an option, according to the sheriff, who said that he learned of McGilligan’s March 11 ruling on Friday night and hasn’t yet read it.

“Right now, everything’s on the table,” Williamson said.

James Daniels, Waldron’s lawyer, could not be reached for comment.

Arbitrators typically look for similar cases within departments to determine whether discipline is fair, but there have been no cases within the past five years of other deputies being accused of theft. McGilligan accepted Waldron’s explanation that she thought the plants were left behind from an event at the park and found that she had violated department rules on handling abandoned property, but there were no pertinent cases of deputies disciplined for violating procedures on handling abandoned property.

In the absence of similar cases, McGilligan looked at cases where male deputies had been disciplined for serious rule violations, including conduct that was illegal, and found that they faced less severe punishment than Waldron.

Cases cited by McGilligan in his ruling include the hiring of Deputy Dave Timm, who had an unspecified conviction on his record when he was hired 15 years ago that has not been investigated by the department. In another case, Deputy Brian Stapleton in 2012 took home a bag of marijuana found during a death investigation and used it to train a police dog without logging the drugs into evidence. Stapleton received a one-day suspension and written reprimand.

Deputy Wes Wooden in 2009 received a reprimand for selling alcohol after hours and a three-day suspension last year after flirting via Facebook with a woman he had arrested. Deputy Matt Lorton got a written reprimand last year after department investigators determined that he had kicked open a bathroom door to get a phone from his estranged wife and had also “chased after” her to retrieve some papers and a bottle of liquor. Deputy David Howse got a “lengthy” suspension after he was found not to be alert while on duty and for being somewhere other than his reported location. McGilligan’s ruling does not indicate when Howse was punished.

“(T)he union has shown male deputies have received significantly lighter forms of discipline than the Grievant for similarly serious offenses,” McGilligan wrote.

Not so, Williamson says.

“There’s nobody who’s treated differently than anyone else,” the sheriff said. 

Waldron’s lawyer, who is employed by the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police Labor Council, argued that the department should have employed progressive discipline rather than terminate Waldron. 

The department had argued that the alleged theft of plants and guilty plea to shoplifting charges so seriously damaged Waldron’s credibility that she could never again work as a deputy. The shoplifting incident, the county said, will have to be disclosed to defense attorneys if Waldron is called to testify in court.

The arbitrator, however, found that evidence showed that Waldron “is a truthful, honest person” who had won several commendations and had never before gotten in trouble while employed as a deputy.

McGilligan noted that Waldron received court supervision on the shoplifting charge, which means, under Illinois law, that she does not have a conviction on her official record even though she pleaded guilty. The arbitrator called her actions in the shoplifting case “disappointing.” McGilligan said that Waldron showed “extremely poor judgment” in taking the plants home from the park without notifying anyone in the sheriff’s office, contrary to department policy that says abandoned property should be reported.

However, Waldron’s “excellent” past record on the job, the department’s failure to prove she stole the plants and the appearance of disparate discipline for male deputies required that she not be terminated, McGilligan found.

 

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.

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