Brian Hunzeker, the Portland police officer responsible for leaking false information linking former city commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty to a 2021 hit-and-run, has been reinstated to his position with the Portland Police Bureau (PPB). While Hunzeker was originally fired in March 2022 for his involvement in the leak, a labor arbitrator from the Oregon Employee Relations Board found that Hunzeker’s actions did not warrant termination.

“The Arbitrator does not believe that reinstating a meritorious police officer does harm to the City as a whole or to any specific community within the City,” arbitrator Timothy Williams’ report states. “There is every reason to believe that [Hunzeker] will again provide quality police services that are vital to any large city. That clearly is in the public interest.”

In March 2021, the Oregonian reported that then-city commissioner Hardesty was named a suspect in a police investigation of a hit-and-run. Hardesty denied her involvement and called for an investigation into how her name had been attached to the crime and released to the media. A subsequent investigation revealed that Hunzeker, a Portland police officer and then-president of PPB’s rank-and-file union, the Portland Police Association (PPA), was responsible for the inaccurate leaked information. During the investigation, Hunzeker told investigators that he shared the false report with Oregonian reporter Maxine Bernstein partly in response to "Commissioner Hardesty’s inaccurate allegations about officers setting fires during protests," a claim that Hardesty made in 2020 and later apologized for. Hunzeker also indicated that he believed sharing the unverified report with a reporter was a way of “advocating” for his fellow police officers in response to Hardesty’s criticism of the police bureau, which investigators determined to mean he understood that the hit-and-run allegation would harm Hardesty’s reputation and credibility. Investigators determined that Hunzeker violated bureau policies on dissemination of information, confidentiality, and retaliation.

Following the investigation, Mayor Ted Wheeler—who oversees the police bureau—chose to fire Hunzeker due to the “egregiousness of his actions.” Police Chief Chuck Lovell disagreed with Hunzeker’s termination at the time, believing that the officer should have only been given a 12-week suspension.

Despite the initial investigation’s findings, Hunzeker maintained that his actions were not retaliatory. A state labor arbitrator—a public employee responsible for evaluating labor disputes—agreed with Hunzeker.

According to the arbitrator’s report, prompted by Hunzeker appealing his termination through the PPA, the city failed to provide evidence to prove that Hunzeker acted in retaliation. The public report redacts Hunzeker’s name, but details of the report and statements by the PPA confirm his identity.

In the report, Williams notes that “there is no question that the information disclosed was adverse to the interests of Commissioner Hardesty,” but argues that evidence of Hunzeker leaking the false information about Hardesty as a form of “payback” is circumstantial. Williams argues that PPA has a long history of “clashing” with the Mayor, City Council, and Hardesty prior to Hunzeker’s appointment to PPA President in late 2020. Because “PPA had a substantial history […] of publicly questioning the work of Commissioner Hardesty,” Hunzeker’s “interest and concern” that Hardesty may have been involved in a hit-and-run was understandable. Williams also determined that Hunzeker was acting as President of the PPA, not an officer, when he contacted the reporter to leak the information.

“The Arbitrator concludes that [Hunzeker’s] contact with the reporter cannot be viewed in isolation, it should be viewed as a continuation of the PPA’s political efforts to discredit Commissioner Hardesty’s attacks on the PPB and the PPA,” Williams wrote. “It also gives credibility to [Hunzeker’s] statement that if the allegation was true, it was a matter of public interest.”

Williams goes on to argue that the act of disseminating the information and the motivation for disseminating the information are two different issues. While the city, PPA, Hunzeker, and Williams all agree that Hunzeker violated PPB’s rules against disseminating information when he shared the unverified report of the hit-and-run with the Oregonian, they disagree on his reasons for doing it. 

When it comes to Hunzeker’s motivations for leaking the information, Williams cites Hunzeker’s repeated claims that Hardesty’s involvement in a hit-and-run, if true, would be of public interest. Williams argues that, because of the long history of the PPA “questioning the attacks of Commissioner Hardesty on the PPB,” Hunzeker’s motivation was in line with his position as PPA president.

“It is political discourse,” Williams writes. “And, as the Union emphasizes, political discourse cannot be defined broadly as prohibited retaliation.”

In other words, Hunzeker’s motivations for revealing unverified information about Hardesty that could damage her credibility were because of his role as union president, not a personal vendetta.

Two other officers were also involved in the false information leak, but the city did not fire them for helping disseminate the information. Though Hunzeker was fired because the city believed he retaliated against Hardesty—a claim Williams found to be unsubstantiated—the arbitrator ruled that Hunzeker’s termination was not reasonable and he should have been disciplined similarly to the other two officers.

“An injustice can be done when a good police officer is terminated for political or other reasons not justified by the facts,” Williams wrote. “It is this Arbitrator’s conclusion that the discharge of [Hunzeker] falls into that category. The facts do not justify the decision to terminate his employment.”

Williams determined that Hunzeker should have only been suspended for a week without pay in response to breaking PPB policy for dissemination of information. Due to the ruling, the city must reinstate Hunzeker to the police force within 30 days and pay him for lost wages since his termination, minus one week.

In a Thursday press release, PPA applauded Hunzeker’s reinstatement.

“Our social structures must allow for facts, not hyperbole or rhetoric, to guide our decisions about accountability,” PPA wrote. “The only way to build and maintain trust in policing—or in any of our social institutions for that matter—is to approach any issue objectively, with an eye to fairness and restoration.”

Hardesty could not be immediately reached for comment.