By many accounts, the tenure of Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher in Washington had been a tumultuous one. As described by the Washington Supreme Court, “During his short reign as sheriff, Hatcher created a culture of control that led to a hostile work environment for many, if not all, of his employees.”
In January 2020, the Benton County Deputy Sheriff’s Guild wrote a letter expressing no confidence in Hatcher. The published letter, which was the second they’d written, informed Hatcher that ‘after an overwhelming vote of our members, we can no longer support you, Jerry Hatcher, as our Sheriff.” The Guild expressed members’ fear of retaliation and intimidation for speaking out, and minced no words:
“You have been our Sheriff for less than two years. During this short amount of time, you have destroyed the positive culture within our organization and developed a culture that can only be described as hostile and negative. We can best define you as a Tyrant. You exercise your power similar to that of an oppressive dictator. Deputies and supervisors are frustrated, and deeply saddened by your lack of both leadership and professionalism. The atmosphere in the office can only be described as depressing, stressful, and plagued with heavy negativity.”
The Guild’s president, Sergeant Jason Erickson, filed a petition to recall Hatcher after 90% of the Guild met and unanimously voted to pursue recall. The ballot synopsis broke down the Guild’s 26 allegations into eight distinct charges, alleging that Hatcher illegally:
- Appropriated 14 cases of ammunition belonging to Benton County for his own use.
- Tampered with physical evidence by directing the distribution of ammunition that was potential evidence of his own alleged unlawful acts.
- Interfered in an investigation into his conduct by acting to prevent witnesses from being interviewed.
- Violated county anti-discrimination policy by hindering an investigation into his conduct and retaliating against the complainant and witnesses to the investigation.
- Intimidated public servants and witnesses in investigations into his conduct by raising false allegations of impropriety and threatening witnesses’ jobs.
- Made false or misleading statements to law enforcement and the court regarding the number of firearms he needed to surrender pursuant to a court order.
- Made false or misleading statements to public servants claiming that he had initiated a criminal investigation into his own conduct when he had not.
- Falsified a public record by placing a false date on an investigation request.
Hatcher filed a court challenge to the legal and factual sufficiency of the charges. The Washington Supreme Court recently ruled that all the charges were sufficient and ordered the continuation of the recall process.
A good deal of the Court’s opinion involved the sixth allegation, that Hatcher made false or misleading statements to law enforcement and a court regarding the number of firearms he needed to surrender pursuant to a court order. The issue arose when Hatcher admitted to multiple employees that while he and his wife were arguing about his having an affair, he “grabbed his wife by the neck and moved her out of has way.” A trial court granted a domestic violence protective order that, among other things, ordered Hatcher to surrender all his weapons, including all weapons on his person, in his vehicle, and in his homes in Kennewick and Montana.
Hatcher told a local police captain that he currently only had two firearms in his possession, two more at his Kennewick home and “other” firearms in Montana. Days later, Hatcher turned over one more weapon: a Glock 9 mm handgun.
During a subsequent hearing in his divorce, Hatcher’s wife disputed Hatcher’s count of his firearms. Later the same day, Hatcher surrendered five additional firearms and told the police that there were “several” additional firearms at his wife’s residence. When local police went to the Kennewick home, they recovered ten firearms.
The Court found that these facts were sufficient to support the recall petition: “Hatcher mistakenly contends that because this was a private divorce case, any acts he committed were not ‘undertaken in his official duties as the sheriff’ and the charges should be dismissed. The flaw in his position is that as a public official, Sheriff Hatcher is in a unique position regarding the law. The sheriff, as the person elected to enforce the law, is always charged with upholding the laws of the State of Washington.
“He knew of the Court’s temporary domestic violence protective order and the order to surrender weapons, and he knew what was required to comply with the orders. The voters could find that the sheriff committed misfeasance and malfeasance when he interfered with the performance of official duty by misrepresenting the number of weapons he owned or had in his possession and failed to correct his attorney’s misstatement to the court that all firearms had been turned over to the police. They could find that he also committed an unlawful act when he made a false statement to the officers and/or that these acts were a violation of the oath of office.”
In re Hatcher, 2021 WL 126590 (Wash. 2021)