of­fi­cer fired in force case is back on the job

Ar­bi­tra­tor: Pun­ish­ment for in­ci­dent, af­ter­math too harsh

Austin American-Statesman - - METRO&STATE - By Pa­trick Ge­orge

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.

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