PORTLAND, Ore. — A Portland police officer who was fired last year for his role in the leak of a police report that falsely identified then-Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty as a hit-and-run suspect has been reinstated, according to the Portland Police Association.
In a news release Thursday, the union stated that an arbitrator appointed by the State labor board had reviewed the case and reinstated Brian Hunzeker, concluding that his actions did not rise to a level that justified termination. The arbitrator imposed a one-week unpaid suspension for the incident, according to the union.
"While I stand behind my decision in this case, I respect the legal process," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement Thursday. Wheeler, who also serves as Police Commissioner, fired Hunzeker in February 2022.
"Meaningful accountability can take many forms, even when it may not look exactly the way we initially envisioned it," Wheeler added. "It is my sincere hope that we can all come together and find ways to bring healing for the harm caused and unity in ensuring it never happens again."
Hardesty did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Reached by phone Thursday, Hunzeker said "just stop, just stop, leave me alone," and then hung up on KGW.
The leak of false information
The incident began on March 3, 2021 when a woman called 911 to report a hit-and-run crash and identified the other driver as Hardesty. The caller was mistaken — a police investigation ruled out Hardesty the next day — but part of an initial police report mentioning Hardesty was nonetheless leaked to the media.
Hunzeker abruptly resigned from his position as president of the union about two weeks later for what the union's executive board described in a statement as a "serious, isolated mistake" related to the investigation into the hit-and-run allegation against Hardesty, although it did not specify the mistake.
When he fired Hunzeker, Wheeler said Hunzeker copied a confidential record using his phone and sent it to a media outlet without authorization, calling his actions both a violation of policy and "retaliation against a democratically elected member of the City Council due to her criticisms of the police bureau."
An internal affairs investigation concluded that Hunzeker and two other officers had each leaked the report, though Hunzeker was the only officer who took it directly to a media contact.
Hardesty denounced the leak as a smear tactic and a deliberate act of political retaliation against her due to her history of criticizing Portland police.
The arbitrator's decision
A copy of the state arbitrator's report published on the Oregon Employment Relations Board website, which redacts Hunzeker's name but clearly concerns his case, goes through arbitrator Timothy Williams' reasoning for reinstating the officer. While Williams upheld the city's allegation that Hunzeker leaked information in violation of policy, he disagreed that the officer also engaged in the more serious charge of retaliation.
Williams referred to Hunzeker's motives, based on his testimony, as a concern for "public discourse."
"The City's position is that his acknowledgement of concern over what he perceives to be unwarranted attacks on police officers indicates retaliation," Williams wrote. "The Arbitrator cannot agree and views it as a matter of political response."
"Clearly, (Hunzeker) was fully aware of the attacks that Commissioner Hardesty had leveled against the PPB and the PPA when he wrongfully disseminated privileged information to the reporter," Williams continued. "That fact, however, does not lead to the conclusion that his disclosure was motivated by a personal vendetta against the Commissioner. The Arbitrator’s reading of (Hunzeker's) statements is that they are couched in the context of public discourse. He constantly comes back to the point that 'if true' it was a matter of public interest and public concern."
According to Williams, Hunzeker's statements to investigators indicated a desire to defend the PPA by leaking the info about Hardesty, not necessarily to retaliate against the Commissioner, and "if true, being a hit-and-run driver would be another example of the Commissioner’s lack of honesty."
That the allegation wasn't true — and that Hunzeker admitted to the reporter that it could easily prove to be untrue — made the act "more egregious," Williams said, but the arbitrator nonetheless determined that the city did not prove Hunzeker's motivations amounted to retaliation.
Williams stated that Hunzeker was a good cop, one with a clean record prior to the Hardesty leak. He opined that Hunzeker would continue to serve the city of Portland well in the future — and though he deserved discipline in line with what the other two officers received, he should not have been terminated.
Current PPA president Aaron Schmautz, who replaced Hunzeker after he stepped down, agreed with Williams' assessment wholeheartedly.
"Officer Hunzeker openly acknowledged from the very beginning of this that he made a mistake," Schmautz said. "And police officers are humans — they are not perfect, they are not infallible, and in order for an accountability system to function it is based upon due process, it is based upon just cause, and I thought that in this particular case the arbitrator really highlighted better than I have ever seen the reality that there is not this binary where all accountability equals terminating all police officers."
The other two officers who were identified as having leaked the false report about Hardesty were not terminated. Officer Kerri Ottoman was suspended for one day without pay and Officer Ken Le received a letter of reprimand.
City records show that Portland Police Chief Chuck Lovell did not initially intend to terminate Hunzeker either, recommending a three-month suspension. The decision to fire Hunzeker was made by Mayor Ted Wheeler, with the termination letter citing the "extreme harm" caused by Hunzeker's behavior.
With the exception of the single unpaid week, arbitrator Timothy Williams stipulated that Hunzeker should be "made whole" for all lost wages and benefits and reinstated within 30 days by the City of Portland.
Hardesty lost her reelection bid last year to challenger Rene Gonzalez, who took office last month. In December of 2021, she filed a $5 million lawsuit naming the PPA, Hunzeker and Ottoman in response to the leak. The court case remains open and ongoing.