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Thursday, June 5, 2014 04:55 pm

Cops in court

Sheriff appeals arbitrator’s decision

The Sangamon County sheriff’s office is asking a judge to overturn an arbitrator’s ruling that an admitted thief be reinstated to her job as a sheriff’s deputy.

Sharon Waldron was fired after a surveillance camera captured her removing potted plants from a Sherman park near her home. She was on duty at the time she loaded plants into her patrol vehicle, first on May 4, 2012 and again three days later. Waldron said that she thought that the plants had been left over from a party or other event, and a jury that acquitted her on theft charges apparently believed her.

After her acquittal but before her arbitration hearing, Waldron last year was caught shoplifting groceries from Schnuck’s on Sangamon Avenue and pleaded guilty to charges of retail theft. In overturning her termination, arbitrator Dennis McGilligan in his March decision called the shoplifting incident “disappointing” and found that she had used “extremely poor judgment” in removing plants from the park. He ordered that she be suspended for 30 days for the plant incident and an additional 60 days for stealing groceries.

In a lawsuit filed today against Waldron and the Illinois Fraternal Order of Police, the union that represented her during the arbitration, attorneys for the sheriff’s office argue that McGilligan overstepped his bounds when he ordered discipline in the shoplifting case. Attorneys say the sheriff’s office never requested discipline in that matter and that the grocery theft was brought up only to allow McGilligan to assess Waldron’s credibility when she testified about the plant incident.

In asking McGilligan to reconsider his decision, the sheriff’s office in March suggested awarding nearly a year of back pay to cover the period of time between Waldron’s termination and her shoplifting arrest, which the department argues is a firing offense in and of itself. The arbitrator stood firm, however, and the department in its lawsuit says that the entire decision should be thrown out because the arbitrator’s decision in the plant and the grocery cases are “inextricably intertwined.”

The case centered in part on why Waldron was at the park after dark in the first place. She testified that she needed to go to the bathroom. The video showed that she tried to open the door of a locked storage room but never tried a nearby restroom door, even though light from inside was visible around the door frame. She said that she assumed all the doors were locked. A GPS device on her patrol vehicle showed that she had just been at her nearby home for 20 minutes prior to arriving at the park. Waldron said that she was checking her mail and didn’t go inside to use her own bathroom because she didn’t want to wake her daughter and she didn’t want her neighbors to think she was taking an undeserved break from work. She could not recall when or where she eventually did answer nature’s call.

The arbitrator found her explanation credible.

“Once she determined that the (park) bathrooms were not open, her immediate urge to go to the bathroom apparently passed,” McGilligan wrote. “The arbitrator accepts it is possible the urge to relieve oneself may pass if not immediately indulged.”

The sheriff’s office says that Waldron is now useless as a police officer. Continued employment would erode public trust in the department, attorneys for the department said in the lawsuit and the arbitration case, and any court testimony she gave in a criminal case would be tainted.

Sheriff Neil Williamson, who’s been the county’s top cop since 1994, couldn’t recall another instance of appealing an arbitrator’s decision in an employment matter.

“It’s kind of unusual,” Williamson said. “We felt this decision was so far out of line. … The public trust, that’s the main thing with me. We have to at least make an effort.”

If Waldron returns to work, Williamson said that she would likely be assigned to a desk job and perform such duties as filing and taking reports from citizens who visit the office.

“What else could we do with her?” Williamson says.

It is not unusual for the department to lose an arbitration case.

“I don’t think we’re batting .500,” Williamson said. “I don’t think the record’s that good.”

The sheriff couldn’t explain why.

“I wish I knew,” Williamson said. “I don’t have any easy answers.”

Contact Bruce Rushton at brushton@illinoistimes.com.


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