Judge says arbiter has authority to OK reinstatement of officer dismissed by Chief Acevedo
A judge ruled Wednesday that an independent arbitrator had proper authority to reinstate an Austin police officer who was fired in 2008 amid allegations of assault and dishonesty.
State District Judge Suzanne Covington denied claims by city lawyers that arbitrator John B. Barnard of Dallas exceeded his role in returning Sgt. Nedith Torres to the force earlier this year.
Barnard wrote in his opinion that although allegations of dishonesty against Torres were true, Police Chief Art Acevedo should have more strongly considered Torres’ record in determining punishment. He said Torres should have received a written reprimand instead of being fired — an opinion that Acevedo rejected and took to court.
“We knew it was a long shot, but when we deal with serious acts of misconduct, we have a responsibility to the greater community and the men and women of the Austin Police Department to leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of excellence and our pursuit of the highest ethical standards,” Acevedo said.
Austin attorney Tom Stribling, who is representing Torres, said, “We are very pleased with the judge’s ruling and hope that the city will comply with this order and get Sgt. Torres back to work soon.”
City lawyers appealed Barnard’s decision in state district court in February — a rare legal move. According to state law, the opinions of arbitrators can be appealed to a district court if arbitrators lacked or exceeded their authority. Officers or police officials also can appeal if they think the arbitrator’s opinion was based on “fraud, collusion or other unlawful means.”
City attorneys did not specifically say how Barnard exceeded his authority. Acevedo said the ruling conflicted with the community’s desires.
Officials have said an incident between Torres and his wife began when she found photographs of him and another woman in bed together. A disciplinary memo said Torres’ wife told investigators that she confronted him and that her refusal to return the camera led to a struggle. Torres was dishonest by denying he hurt his wife, the memo said.
Barnard said in his ruling that the evidence in the case could be described as “circumstantial.”
Sgt. Wayne Vincent, president of the Austin police union, said Wednesday that he is pleased Torres will be able to return to work.
“We knew there was no basis for this appeal,” he said.