A CHALLENGE TO FIGHT
On Dec. 3, 2015, an official with the criminal division of the Bexar County District Attorney’s Office in Texas was concerned about the dashboard-camera video of a recent arrest by a San Antonio police officer.
“Can you take a look at this video?” the official asked in an email to the city attorney’s office. “The officer has the suspect handcuffed, in custody and challenges him to fight while unhandcuffing him.”
Soon, the police department’s internal affairs unit launched an investigation into the officer involved: Matthew Belver, then 43 and with nine years’ service in the department. Belver also worked part time as a security guard at a local church. The video was eventually made public under pressure from the local media.
The video depicted the August 2015 arrest of then-48-year-old Eloy Leal, who told internal affairs investigators that he had gone outside to investigate after someone had been injured during a shooting in his neighborhood. Leal said that he saw bullet casings on the street near the scene and that he pointed them out to Belver, who was one of the responding officers, according to internal affairs and arbitration documents.
Then, Leal said, he criticized Belver for missing the casings and announced that he was walking home to get a camera to document the evidence. As Leal began walking away, Belver arrested him, records show.
The next 17 minutes were captured on the camera mounted on Belver’s dashboard. Belver was recorded telling Leal, who was handcuffed in the back seat of the squad car, that he could go free if he was willing to fight.
“If you beat my a--, don’t f--ing kill me,” Leal pleaded as Belver uncuffed him.
“Naw, as soon as they come off, I’m going to beat your a--,” Belver responded.
The officer ordered Leal to get out of the squad car and run or fight, but Leal refused. Belver recuffed Leal, who asked what he was being charged with.
“I’ll think of something,” Belver responded, driving away with Leal in the back seat. Leal was charged with interfering with the duties of a public official, a charge that prosecutors later dropped. Leal could not be reached for comment.
The incident was not the first time Belver had been accused of misconduct by people he arrested. The department had fired Belver in 2010 after two other allegations that led to separate investigations by internal affairs.
In the first incident, Belver was accused of unlawfully entering a home and roughing up two men who were accused of threatening neighbors with a gun.
In the second, two weeks later, Belver arrested Carlos Flores, a San Antonio mechanic, on suspicion of drunken driving. Then, according to a complaint from Flores, Belver challenged him to a fight.
Belver “told me that if I could kick his [a--], he would let me go,” Flores said in his complaint. By the time Flores reached the police detention center, he had a bruised left eye, injuries to his back and neck, and a large bruise across his face, an internal affairs investigation would later determine.
Flores, who could not be reached for comment, was convicted of misdemeanor driving while intoxicated and felony assault against a public servant. The assault conviction was later overturned on appeal.
But Belver and his union attorneys won the officer’s job back after his 2010 firing, negotiating a “last chance agreement” that allowed Belver to return to work as long as he had no further misconduct and agreed that he would not patrol alone.
After the 2015 video surfaced of Belver challenging Leal to a fight, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus fired Belver again — writing on Feb. 12, 2016, that the officer had violated several department policies as well as his last-chance agreement.
Once again, Belver appealed his firing.
During the two-day hearing last September, Belver’s attorney argued that because the lastchance agreement was limited to two years, it had expired eight months before the Leal encounter. The attorney also noted that the union contract prohibited the department from considering discipline for matters older than 180 days, which would exclude the prior two allegations of assault made against Belver.
Arbitrator Lynne M. Gomez, a labor lawyer, agreed with the union’s position on the lastchance agreement. In the circumstances, a firing was too harsh, she ruled.
“While the Chief testified that he thinks the Grievant is a ‘disaster waiting to happen’ . . . just cause generally requires that discipline be applied progressively to achieve a corrective goal,” Gomez said in her ruling.
Gomez in February issued Belver a 45-day suspension and ordered that he be returned to work with back pay, which city officials said will be $66,662.
Reached by email, Belver declined to be interviewed, referring questions to the head of the police union, who he said would be “familiar with both this incident and the arbitration process that followed.”
Mike Helle of the San Antonio Police Officers Association said in an interview with The Washington Post that Belver was in the wrong because he had placed himself, his fellow officers and the public at risk. But Helle, the president of the officers association, said he supports the arbitrator’s decision because not every infraction merits termination.
“Arbitration creates an environment in which the final sayso of whether the termination is justifiable or not is in the hands of a third party,” Helle said. “It creates a bit of fairness. It takes the emotion out of the argument.”
McManus, the police chief, declined to be interviewed about the Belver case or the other 29 officers whom the San Antonio Police Department has been compelled to rehire since 2006.
“I’m sure many police chiefs across the country share the same frustrations that I do when an arbitrator overturns a termination,” McManus said in a statement.
Arbitration “creates a bit of fairness.” Mike Helle, San Antonio Police Officers Association