Sunday, April 27, 2014

Reinstatement of police officer who used "unreasonable and unnecessary" force not violative of public policy

Grievant was employed as a police officer for the City of Owasso, OK. His employment was terminated after the City accused him of engaging in excessive force in violation of Department policies in connection with the arrest and transportation of an individual. After a hearing, Arbitrator Edward Valverde concluded that the evidence established that while the officer had used "unreasonable and unnecessary force," the absence of evidence that the subject was injured precluded a finding that the force was excessive. In an award discussed here, Arbitrator Valverde found the discipline excessive and overturned the termination, reducing the discipline to a written warning.

The City sought to vacate the award on the grounds, inter alia, that reinstatement of an officer found to have engaged in such conduct violated the public policy of Oklahoma. The trial court agreed, concluding that grievant's conduct showed that his continued employment "poses a special risk of injury, physical and psychological, to citizens, and, if he is allowed reinstatement, the department will be faced with explaining why Owasso allows abusive conduct by its officers, which is against the law."

The Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals has now reversed that decision, effectively enforcing the arbitrator's award. Initially, the Court observed that any decision of an arbitrator adverse to the position of the City might have some "fallout", but that it was "not the function of the court to protect the City from the consequences of the bargained for arbitration process."  The Court further concluded:

The parties clearly bargained for an arbitrator's interpretation of the CBA, and so long as the arbitrator remained true to the essence of the agreement, his decision should not be disturbed. More specifically, the parties bargained for the arbitrator's construction of the term "just cause" as used in the CBA, and, although reasonable people might differ on the appropriate discipline to be imposed, the CBA placed no limitation on the arbitrator's authority to craft a remedy for [grievant's] use of unreasonable and unnecessary force different from the decision of the City to terminate his employment.

Contrary to the lower court, and the dissenting judge, the Court of Civil Appeals found nothing in the criminal statues defining assault, or the statutory definition of excessive force, that would serve as an impediment to reinstatement

The Tulsa World reports on the decision, and links to the Court's opinion, here.

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