An administrative judge has reversed the suspension of a Chattanooga police officer and ordered the officer reinstated after determining the officer had simply made a mistake, and not lied, on a form.
“Sometimes we forget that law enforcement officers are people, too, and they make mistakes,” said Rachel Samuda, IBPO regional director. “Management needs to understand the difference between a mistake and a lie, and treat that difference accordingly.”
The officer at the center of the case had been on the job for nearly ten years and had never been disciplined. He and several other officers were overheard discussing whether or not a particular superior officer had encouraged officers under his supervision to use excessive force on the job.
During the internal affairs investigation into the superior officer’s alleged activities, the grievant told investigators of an incident involving excessive force. He recalled another officer kneeing the suspect in the face. The officer didn’t recall many of the details of the incident, nor did he recall whether a “Use of Force” form had been completed following the incident.
The investigator found the Use of Force form for the 2006 incident. The form contained a description of the altercation leading to the arrest, but did not mention a knee strike to the face. The grievant had completed a small part of the form, but the arresting officer had completed most of it. The supervising officer denied any use of excessive force in that arrest.
The investigation into the supervising officer was closed, but a second one opened to determine if the grievant had been untruthful on the Use of Force form.
The investigator determined that the grievant had been untruthful on the form regarding the 2006 incident. The head of internal affairs opined that the officer had manufactured the story about excessive force because he didn’t like the supervisor. The grievant was suspended for fourteen days.
At the hearing, the grievant said he still did not recall having filled out a portion of the Use of Force form. At the time of the arrest, the officer working in the district of the arrest commonly filled out the form, then passed it along to other officers for their additions. The grievant could not recall all of the details of the event and testified that it was not his intent to lie when he signed the form.
The burden of proof in this case was on the Chattanooga Police department to show that there was just cause to suspend the officer. Several passages in the departmental code of conduct refer to officer behavior:
“…no employee shall knowingly enter or cause to be entered inaccurate, false, misleading, or improper information, or submit reports containing material omissions.”
“…The intentional misrepresentation of a material fact during an internal investigation may result in the dismissal of the employee from the Department.”
“Employees shall not knowingly make false accusations of a criminal offense or traffic charge or make false statements concerning any incident.”
The judge ruled that the Department had not satisfied its burden of proving there was a reasonable basis for suspending the officer. The investigator, wrote the judge, ignored the possibility that the lack of documentation could have been a mistake. As for the alleged motive, the judge noted that the supervisor and the officer had no apparent history of personal problems. In fact, the supervisor had helped the officer recently in obtaining additional work.
Since the Department had not met its burden of proof, ruled the judge, there was no just cause to suspend the officer. The judge ordered the suspension reversed and the officer reinstated and made whole.
“Being charged with untruthfulness can be devastating to a law enforcement officer’s career, so we’re very pleased with the outcome of this case,” said Samuda.