Sunday, October 26, 2014

Arbitrator overturns suspension of police officer disciplined for alleged use of excessive force

Arbitrator Michael Cavanaugh, chair of a unanimous three person panel, has sustained a grievance filed on behalf of a Seattle police officer challenging his eight day suspension for claimed use of excessive force.

The incident in question arose during an investigation of an individual believed to have been involved in a hit and run. Grievant was one of two officers who initially stopped the suspect. These two officers were then joined by a third. While inspecting the suspect's vehicle grievant observed what he believed to be a failure of the suspect to comply with the requests of the other officers. Grievant approached the suspect and using a "command voice" (a tactic he had been trained to use) ordered the suspect to "shut your mouth and just sit there." A struggle ensued as the officers attempted to handcuff the suspect, and in the course of the struggle the suspect spit on the officers. Grievant struck the suspect with his forearm and, after the suspect was on the ground, struck him with a closed fist.

A review of grievant's conduct was conducted, and a Sergeant, and acting Lieutenant and a Captain concluded that greivant's actions were reasonable and within policy. The Captain however referred the matter to the Office of Professional Accountability for a "complete and thorough review."

The OPA found grievant's use of force unjustified and unnecessary. It found that he had unnecessarily escalated the situation by injecting himself in an aggressive manner and that his use of force was "premature".

Consistent with the recommendations of the OPA, the Chief suspended grievant for a period of eight days. The Seattle Police Officers' Guild grieved and ultimately arbitrated this discipline.

Initially Arbitrator Cavanaugh addressed the nature of the dispute:

Allegations of excessive force by police officers require consideration of several significant - and often conflicting - public policy and political considerations, each of which is critically important in its own right, e.g. public safety, officer safety, the rights of individual members of the public, and the health of relationships between the SPD and the communities it serves - not to mention the City's compliance with a settlement agreement with the United Sates Department of Justice resulting from claims the SPD has too often used excessive force. 

The Arbitrator noted that just cause for the discipline could be established:

only if facts sufficient sufficient to support the discipline have been established by a preponderance of the evidence in the record, and even then, only if the process used by the City comports with accepted notions of due process and with concepts of equal treatment when considered in light of the discipline imposed on other officers for similar established offenses.

Applying these standards, Arbitrator Cavanaugh concluded that the City had failed to meet its burden. He determined that what the OPA had deemed to be improper escalation was a legitimate, if unsuccessful, attempt to obtain the suspects compliance without the use of force. He also noted that while what the Chief had described as tactical errors had been made, these errors were equally the responsibility of the other officers on the scene and there was no evidence that they had been disciplined. Finally, he concluded that the evidence failed to establish that the blows delivered by grievant were excessive. With regard to the first, he found an absence of evidence that any reasonably available lesser level of force would have been effective in ending the suspect's assault (i.e. the spitting), and with regard to the second, he found that the City had failed to effectively counter grievant's testimony that the suspect was continuing to resist while he was on the ground.

Finding a lack of just cause for the discipline, the Arbitrator ordered the City to remove the suspension from grievant's record and make him whole for lost wages.

The Seattle Times reports on the award Panel overturns suspension of SPD officer in use-of-force case and links to the award of Arbitrator Cavanaugh here.

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