A Cop’s Life (Through An Arbitrator’s Eyes)

Lt. Mike Denton of the Owasso Police Department in Oklahoma was a bad cop.  Not because I say so, but because Owasso City Manager Rodney Ray says so, and fired him for it.  Denton was fired for using excessive force following the arrest of Bryan Scott Spradlin,

Answering a call about a disturbance caused by an intoxicated man, numerous Owasso police officers came into contact with Spradlin during his arrest at a residence in the 11610 block of East 83rd Street North.

Spradlin refused to obey commands during a field sobriety test and resisted officers’ attempts to handcuff him, reports say. Officers Jonathan Foyil and Ben Wolery forced Spradlin to the ground, and as Wolery tried to gain control of Spradlin’s hands, he attempted to bite Foyil’s arm, the reports state.

After Foyil delivered a burst of pepper spray to Spradlin’s face, he was placed in handcuffs. A straight-blade knife with a taped handle was recovered from Spradlin’s shorts pocket, reports indicate.

Denton and Officer H.D. Pitt had to carry Spradlin into the police station because Spradlin refused to walk up the steps into the building, according to a police report.

Nothing unusual in Tulsa. Except Spradlin had these bloody wounds on his face that he didn’t have before.

Evidence showed that Spradlin went limp on the concrete steps leading to the ramp, causing him to fall face forward on the surface, records indicate.

And then there was the part where Denton’s elbow was assaulted by Spradlin’s face. While all of this should have been videotaped, since the officers wore body cams, they always seemed to be pointed in the wrong direction, except for this part.

Then there are two additional details that seem to get lost in the story, that when Spradlin was being walked up the ramp to the door, Denton stepped on his head.  And after Spradlin fell, he was pulled up by his cuffed arms behind his back, his arms being hyperextended above his head from behind. Arms don’t tend to work that way.

Good enough for a firing?

In college, I was trained in labor arbitration. I read the bible,  Elkouri & Elkouri, from cover to cover. I got it.  And you aren’t going to like it.

In a 21-page report summarizing a March grievance hearing, arbitrator Edward B. Valverde wrote that while Lt. Mike Denton used “unreasonable and unnecessary force,” his actions did “not rise to the level of excessive force within the meaning of existing case law,” and the discipline imposed is “excessive under all the circumstances.”

The arbitrator found that Denton stepped on Spradlin’s head while carrying him up the ramp, records indicate. Valverde also determined that Denton pulled Spradlin’s handcuffed arms above and beyond his head as he was lying in the lobby and struck Spradlin’s face three times with an elbow in the sally port, documents indicate.

None of the three instances rose to the level of excessive force, and no clear evidence was presented that Denton injured Spradlin in any of the incidents, Valverde found.

It’s not that Denton didn’t do everything bad to Spradlin that was alleged. He did, Everyone says so.  But in labor arbitration, that’s merely the starting point. It’s not the labor arbitrator’s job to protect the public and facilitate the police department’s ridding itself of violent, abusive cops.  Not at all. 

The labor arbitrator is charged with two tasks. First is to enforce the requirements of the union contract, which typically contain provisions that would make a mass murderer blush. While criminal laws are primary to all other contracts in this nation, so much so that they compelled judges to riddle the Constitution with exceptions to accommodate the need for convictions, a police contract is the only document that trumps all laws.  It’s a policy thing, because they need it more than the rest of us. They’re our protectors, you know, and that entitles them to special dispensation.

The labor arbitrator’s second task is to determine that all discipline of police officers is fair. Fair is defined by the lowest common denominator, the bar of other police officer behavior.  It could be a high bar. It could be a low bar. It could be a very low bar, and so it was here.

Valverde determined that Denton “is an above average employee who has demonstrated superior performance on more than one occasion in the past.” The arbitrator also found that “based on Denton’s quality work record and OPD’s demonstrated level of tolerance involving employee misconduct,” a written reprimand is the appropriate level of discipline.

While the man on the street doesn’t get his first three elbows to the face for free because he was otherwise a pretty good guy, a labor arbitrator is constrained to consider a police officer’s past performance and prior disciplinary record, in order to determine whether discipline is fair.  The rule is that discipline should increase in severity, beginning with a warning, then reprimand (first oral and later written) and only working its way up to discharge after all levels of lesser discipline have been imposed and failed.

And there is a union lawyer, in this case Patrick Hunt, who handled the grievance through Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 149.

“The impression, I think, was that Mike beat this guy up and did all this damage to his face,” Hunt said. “What came out in the hearing is that his injuries to his face were caused because he did a face plant as he was taken into the station. He stopped at the steps. We call it ‘playing dead.’

“He crashed forward and smashed his face. Later, Mike smacked him with his elbow in what we call the sally port area” at the jail.

This was his defense, arguing how the perp was to blame for “playing dead,” making the injuries Spradlin’s fault as he chose to crash forward and smash his face on the concrete.  The elbow in the face thing was just no big deal.

Sometimes conduct is so serious as to justify jumping ahead, bypassing the oral warning for example when they’ve left too much needless blood on the tracks.  But there is no sanction more severe than discharge, and an arbitrator would be remiss in his duty if he allowed an employer, even a public one, to take such a huge leap forward when it wasn’t warranted.

And what makes discharge warranted? When similarly situated employees aren’t treated to lesser sanctions.  And here is where it tends to fall apart.  When the police tolerate abuse and misconduct of prisoners when it’s not on video, it becomes part of the argument to the arbitrator that the occasional beating of a defendant is nothing out of the ordinary.  And the arbitrator feels constrained to limit sanctions in one case to the manner in which they are imposed in other cases. It has to be fair and consistent.  And who better to know how other abuse by other cops is tolerated than a cop?

From the outside, it seems unimaginable that a labor arbitrator is so utterly lacking in understanding as to put a cop like Mike Denton back in uniform.  But he’s just doing his job.

“We’re happy about it,” Hunt said. “Mike’s very happy about it.”

And why wouldn’t he be?  The sanctity of public sector unionism remains untainted by the firing of a bad cop.

H/T Reddit’s  Bad Cop, No Donut FitzMuffKnuckle

4 comments on “A Cop’s Life (Through An Arbitrator’s Eyes)

  1. Frank

    Eventually all this is going to blow up into the faces of the cops, their unions, and the politicians who allow it.

    Ain’t no one gonna be happy when it does.

  2. SHG

    Eventually, forces of nature will rip our planet apart as the universe expands. Ain’t no one gonna be happy when it does.

  3. SHG

    Normally, I would toss a spam comment like this, but then I thought to myself, it’s so illiterate and funny, why not let it remain as a testament to your mad lawyer skillz.

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