On a frigid Friday morning in downtown Spokane, not even the layers of heavy clothing could make Justin Lancaster appear anything other than rail-thin and cold. Still, the homeless Lancaster and a handful of others gritted out several hours underneath the third-floor corner-office window of attorney Robert Dunn. They were pretty hot about Dunn’s recent filing of a $4 million claim against the city, threatening to sue over the firing of a police offi cer involved in an off-duty drunken hit-and-run.
Unlike most protests that draw the usual crowd of Spokane liberals and progressives, this one has attracted the poor and the downtrodden.
Some have been lured by the promise of a bundle of cigarettes or a sack lunch for spending a couple of hours on the protest line, but it appears most have come because they have a visceral and personal reaction to someone suing over being fired for substance abuse.
These are people intimate with alcoholism and the toll it takes.
They have no sympathy for former Spokane Police Sgt. Brad Thoma.
Dunn’s claim contends that Thoma was wrongfully fired on Dec. 21 and that Chief Anne Kirkpatrick has failed to consider Thoma’s alcoholism as a disability.
The Police Guild has separately fi led a grievance seeking Thoma’s reinstatement with back pay.
“You know how alcoholics determine that they are alcoholic?” asks Rosemary Blanks, one of the protest organizers. “They hit rock bottom. His losing his job is a consequence.”
But Thoma is not accepting the consequence, says Brad Wiedrich, another protest organizer.
“All he wants to do is sue the city,” Wiedrich says. “That’s suing me. I’m a taxpayer. He is a police officer and should be held to a higher standard.”
Kirkpatrick, in her dismissal of Thoma, said it was impossible for the 20-year veteran to continue to do his job when part of his deferred prosecution in his DUI hit-and-run case was that an alcohol-detecting ignition device be mounted on any car he drives for the next two years. He was free to come back in two years and re-apply, she said.
The $4 million claim — based on the pay the 44-year-old Thoma could conceivably earn until retirement at 65, Dunn says — and the union grievance struck a wrong note with the protesters.
“I don’t think people should be rewarded for a hit-and-run,” says Kip McGervey, dressed in Carhartts and uncomplainingly holding a protest sign in his bare hands for several hours last week despite temperatures of 20 degrees.
“I had a DUI and lost my job because of it,” he says. It was a good gig with the Transportation Security Administration at the Kona airport in Hawaii, he says. “I haven’t had a drink since.”
Attorney Dunn has talked with several of the protesters and even mugged for a photo holding aloft a picket sign.
He agrees that it’s a potent argument to decry alcohol abuse as a moral and social failing. Dunn says, however, that the protesters “are protesting at the wrong office. I am not in the debate of if it’s a social problem. I’m in the debate of the police following the law.”
Alcoholism is clearly identified as a disability under the law and the city has not offered Thoma appropriate help to come to grips with a condition likely caused by job-related stress, he says.
But there is a different view at street level. “Yesterday I was talking with two deputies at the [STA] Plaza and they said, ‘The reason we’re not bothering you is because we’re with you.’ They think it’s right what we’re doing down here,” Lancaster says.