A CHAL­LENGE TO FIGHT

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - MATTHEW BELVER

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

KSAT (CHAN­NEL 12)

Matthew Belver.

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