officer fired in force case is back on the job
Arbitrator: Punishment for incident, aftermath too harsh
SAN MARCOS— Nine months after the San Marcos Police Department terminated officer Paul Stephens, an independent arbitrator has ruled that the punishment was too severe.
Stephens returned to duty last week. The arbitrator’s June 23 decision overturns Stephens’ indefinite suspension without pay. Instead, he will receive a 15-day suspension, Police Chief Howard Williams said, and will be granted back pay.
Officials did not immediately return calls seeking how much Stephens will receive.
Stephens was suspended in October 2009. Officials cited a use-of-force violation and his actions during the investigation of that incident. Williams said Stephens unnecessarily used his baton against a woman who was not resisting during an encounter outside a downtown San Marcos bar.
During the investigation, Stephens said the woman was part of a group of people fighting, but a patrol car video showed there was no fight. Stephens later admitted to internal investigators that the people were not fighting. Stephens also spoke with several officers
about the investigation after being ordered not to talk about it with anyone but legal counsel and investigators.
Stephens appealed the suspension to independent arbitrator Richard R. Brann, who ruled that Stephens did not violate the use-of-force policy by using his baton against the woman. Brann said she was making verbal threats, was advancing or challenging Stephens, was aggressive and was not following Stephens’ orders to disperse.
“Stephens’ push promptly stopped her advance,” Brann said.
Brann upheld the department’s findings that Stephens did not fully disclose all information about the case and that he was insubordinate, but Brann said that was not sufficient to indefi-
‘If I felt 15 days (of suspension) were appropriate, I would have given (Stephens) 15 days. But I have faith in the system and the law.’
San MarcoS Police cHieF HoWarD WilliaMS
nitely suspend him.
And though Stephens was dishonest when he failed to disclose that he had spoken with other officers about the incident when ordered not to, Brann said, that also did not justify an indefinite suspension. Stephens’ actions did not alter the investigation in any way, Brann said.
Brann’s decision was based on the internal investigation and testimony given in San Marcos in February.
Williams said he was disappointed with Brann’s decision but is bound to follow it.
“If I felt 15 days (of suspension) were appropriate, I would have given (Stephens) 15 days,” Williams said. “But I have faith in the system and the law, and I respect the arbitrator’s decision.”
The department previously disciplined Stephens after an Aug. 5, 2009, traffic stop that garnered national attention.
In that case, Stephens stopped Michael Gonzales on Interstate 35 for driving 95 mph, 30 miles above the speed limit, as he swerved through traffic. Gonzales and his girlfriend were taking their dog, which was choking on food, to a veterinarian in New Braunfels.
The couple said the dog died during the approximately 20-minute stop. Footage from patrol car cameras shows that Stephens chastised Gonzales for speeding, telling the distraught man that it was just a dog and that he could get another one.
After reviewing Stephens’ behavior, Williams apologized to the couple. City officials received thousands of e-mails and phone calls expressing outrage at the officer’s behavior.
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.”
Williams said the department will not appeal in the case.