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Washington city fires officer who made a deal to remove records of past termination from personnel file

Officer Christopher Backus defended his actions, saying he was honest about his past when he got the Tenino Police Department job.

TENINO, Wash. — The City of Tenino terminated a police officer who was at the center of a KING 5 investigation for making a deal with the City of Tukwila to remove records of his 2017 firing from his personnel file.   

Officer Christopher Backus, 35, was fired from the Tenino Police Department on April 21, according to a copy of the termination letter provided to KING 5 by his attorney, Alan Harvey.   

”He’s not pleased with the result,” said Harvey, an attorney with the Vancouver-based firm Northwest Legal Advocates. “If he chose to go back into law enforcement, it was because he wanted to assist people, help people. The City of Tenino and the citizens of Tenino were receiving great service from him.”   

Tenino Mayor Wayne Fournier told Backus the city based its decision on a “careful review” of the circumstances surrounding his departure from the Tukwila Police Department – where Backus worked as a police officer for three years before he was fired in 2017 for excessive force.  

A February KING 5 investigation showed how a 2018 Tukwila settlement agreement revoked the officer’s termination, reversed multiple findings of misconduct, removed disciplinary records from his personnel file and paid Backus $75,000 in exchange for his promise to resign.   

The investigation raised questions about whether the Tenino city leaders who hired Backus in June 2022 knew about or had access to Tukwila police records related to the former officer’s settlement agreement and his history of discipline at the department.  

“Without going into details, there is much about your Tukwila Police Department (TPD) employment and the circumstances of your departure from TPD that was not known to me at the time of your hire,” wrote Fournier in the April 21 letter addressed to Backus. “After careful review of all information I have received since late February … I am terminating your probationary employment with the City of Tenino.”   

Backus’ firing from the Tenino Police Department comes two months after Fournier publicly announced the city temporarily removed Backus from patrol, placed him on a “modified assignment” and opened an internal probe in response to KING 5’s reporting.   

Fournier promised transparency as he explained the city tapped a Seattle law firm to investigate Tenino’s hiring practices and Backus’ past employment.   

It’s unclear if the city concluded its third-party review before ending Backus’ employment.   

‘He was honest’ 

Through his attorney, Backus responded last month to the February KING 5 investigation and the news of his Tenino firing.   

Harvey, who helped Backus overturn his 2017 Tukwila Police Department termination, said the former officer was honest with the City of Tenino about the circumstances of his departure from Tukwila before taking the new job.   

“There’s no evidence of deception on the part of Officer Backus,” Harvey said. “He was completely candid about what had occurred everywhere and provided truthful answers even through his polygraph process.”   

Backus, who is in good standing with the Washington Criminal Justice Training Commission, passed a Tenino background check before the city hired him, according to a KING 5 review of his Tenino personnel file. In addition to the Tukwila Police Department, the Backus' work history includes stints at Washington state’s Adult Protective Services and the Mason County Sheriff’s Office, where he worked as a corrections officer.   

The former officer previously declined interview requests, citing a confidentiality clause in the agreement that prevented him from talking about his case.   

“Officer Backus was concerned, I think a great deal, as to what the ramifications were related to the nondisclosure agreement.”   

Harvey said he and his client reconsidered the interview after further reviewing the terms of the agreement and concluding the settlement only prevents them from making statements that would disparage the City of Tukwila. 

“This essentially puts both parties in a place where they don’t speak ill of each other,” Harvey said. “That’s why I’m providing you answers on behalf of Officer Backus in greater detail ... We’re not saying that the City of Tukwila did anything wrong related to their settlement agreement.”  

‘There was no secrecy’  

The City of Tukwila, which also previously declined to comment on Backus’ case or participate in an interview, defended its actions and transparency in a series of written statements sent to KING 5 more than a month after the investigation aired.  

There was no secrecy as implied in your story,” wrote Victor Masters, public information officer for the Tukwila Police Department, in a March 30 statement.   

KING 5’s February investigation highlighted the difficulty in accessing details about Backus’ law enforcement record as a result of the terms of the settlement. It explained how the City of Tukwila blacked out any mention of Backus’ name in copies of four internal investigations cited in the deal, which were provided to KING 5 in response to a public records request. A KING 5 review of Backus' Tenino and Tukwila personnel files showed no record of his past findings of misconduct.   

In April, the Tukwila Police Department released revised versions of the four internal investigations, un-redacting Backus’ name after KING 5 appealed their public records’ response.   

Masters, who continued to decline an interview request, said Tukwila followed its “standard procedure” and gave City of Tenino background investigators unfettered access to “all personnel, investigative and background files” pertaining to Backus before the small Thurston County city hired him.  

The files were reviewed in-person by the City of Tenino investigators,” he wrote in an email. “The files were not redacted, and no information was excluded from them.”   

Fournier and Tenino Police Chief Robert Auderer did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment.   

The City of Tenino quietly removed Backus’ name last week from its online roster of police department employees.   

Days after Backus’ firing, at an April 25 Tenino City Council meeting, city leaders did not address his employment status or the now-vacant Tenino Police Department role. Fournier and Auderer did not attend the meeting.  

On April 20, the day before Tenino fired the former officer, Masters said no investigators had contacted the City of Tukwila as part of Tenino’s internal review.

To date, neither the Tukwila Police Department nor the City of Tukwila have been contacted by any investigators from (or representing) the City of Tenino,” he wrote.   

Backus challenged Tukwila firing before settlement 

The disciplinary records changed and removed from Backus’ personnel file are related to four internal Tukwila police probes, where the former officer’s bosses originally found he violated department policies.   

Three of the cases led Tukwila leaders to conclude Backus showed a “pattern” of using his taser or threatening to use one when it wasn’t warranted, according to records. Those 2016 incidents were cited as the basis for his 2017 termination.   

Police investigators also alleged in Tukwila disciplinary records that Backus falsified reports, failed to report the use of force, experienced continued negative contact with the public and failed to respond to subsequent discipline.   

During one 2015 incident, disciplinary records alleged Backus misidentified and wrongfully punched a 15-year-old boy in the face while responding to a disturbance call at a Tukwila McDonalds.   

At the front of the internal files, the city included a memo explaining that it “reconsidered” the former cop’s termination and reversed all sustained findings before he “voluntarily resigned” to pursue employment elsewhere.   

Harvey said the City of Tukwila settled with Backus after the former officer challenged his firing through a grievance process. He said Backus documented that his actions were justified and supported by Tukwila Police Department’s use of force policies, and the King County agency had no basis to end his employment.   

“He believed that he was wrongfully terminated,” Harvey said. “At the end of the day, the reason why the settlement was reached – and the way it was reached – was because (Tukwila) couldn't sustain the allegations.”  

“They had an opportunity to go forward and prove any misconduct, and they chose not to. Officer Backus was given a clean slate,” he added. “The settlement agreement speaks for itself.” 

As Backus challenged his termination through the Tukwila grievance process, he also appeared before a Washington state administrative law judge for a hearing to determine if he committed misconduct that would make him ineligible to receive unemployment benefits from the Washington State Employment Security Department, according to a copy of the 2017 court ruling provided by Harvey.   

The judge ruled in Oct. 2017 that Backus was eligible to receive benefits because his actions – in relation to his use of force and the use of his Taser – did not meet the standards of disqualifying misconduct under state law  

The City of Tukwila declined to comment on Backus’ settlement agreement or Harvey's explanation. 

"We will not be providing comment related to the statements made by the attorney for Christopher Backus," Masters, the Tukwila public information officer, wrote in an email. "Our focus is, and has been on serving the Tukwila community." 

The city also declined to comment on two similar settlement agreements where, in 2019 and 2020, the city agreed to change and remove disciplinary records from the personnel files of two other Tukwila Police Department employees in exchange for their resignation.   

“When it comes to such agreements, they are reviewed and advised upon by legal counsel,” wrote Tukwila Police Chief Eric Drever in a Feb.10 statement. “We are typically unable to comment on them due to the potential for litigation and or included clauses that preclude us from making any statements.”  

Masters further explained in an April 20 statement that the types of settlements that change or remove findings of misconduct are “typical throughout numerous professions and industries,” and the city’s decisions about the outcomes are made “in the best interest of the community.”   

Police accountability experts are critical of the deals, claiming they erode the trust that people have in police.    

Harvey, who represents members of law enforcement throughout the state, said the purpose of Backus’ agreement was simply to send a message to future employers about the “wrongs that occurred and what efforts were made to correct the wrongs.”  

“It’s a lot like the concerns of someone who is wrongfully accused and how they want their records treated and expunged,” he said. “Say that they were wrongfully accused of a sex offense. They don’t want to remain on a sex offender registration, and I’m thinking most of the populace would think that was unfair.”   

No ‘reasonable opportunity’ to respond in McDonalds case  

Harvey said the City of Tukwila didn’t provide Backus with a “reasonable opportunity to engage” or respond to Tukwila investigators’ conclusions about his actions during the 2015 McDonald's incident, where they alleged Backus misidentified and wrongfully punched a 15-year-old boy.

The city launched an internal affairs investigation in 2017 – after Backus’ departure from the agency. The case wasn’t a factor in the former officer’s Tukwila termination, but it was included in the settlement agreement that removed the records from Backus’ personnel file and changed the outcome of the case.   

Tukwila investigators noted in disciplinary records that Backus’ version of events were “inaccurate and a clear contradiction to what occurs on video.”    

Harvey disputes Tukwila police investigators' findings that the former officer falsified his reports and grabbed the “wrong person.''   

The attorney said the restaurant surveillance video, which Tukwila investigators analyzed and cited throughout the course of their probe, shows a manager “essentially directing” Backus towards Marquez Riddle, the then 15-year-old boy Backus tackled to the ground.   

In disciplinary records, Tukwila investigators documented  unsuccessful attempts to contact Backus. Harvey said their efforts to get in touch were minimal.     

"There wasn’t an opportunity – other than the fact that he was aware that an accusation had been made – for him to review the video, for him to do anything two and a half plus years after the incident,” Harvey said.  

Harvey did not directly respond to other allegations made by Tukwila police investigators about the officer’s conduct during the incident, including their conclusions that Backus failed to investigate the situation before tackling the boy and that he used excessive force.    

“I don't think he would ever agree with findings that were from something that was withdrawn,” Harvey said. “If the city didn't believe in them, why would he?” 

Watch: More KING 5 investigations

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