Stockton Police Officer Prevails in Use-of-Force Case

Posted on Saturday, October 01, 2011 at 12:00PM
Posted by Steven W. Welty

In this case, the Department originally proposed a 20-day suspension without pay for excessive force. The discipline was reduced to five days based on arguments presented at Teague’s Skelly hearing, but any discipline was unacceptable. Some may consider disciplinary cases involving only a five-day suspension without pay insignificant. However, allegations sustained by your department can tarnish your career and your reputation. Excessive-force cases are always significant because the sustained charge is extremely stigmatizing to the officer’s character and judgment. No officer wants such a derogative label attached to his file. William Teague, a veteran Stockton Police Officer, was fully exonerated of excessive-force charges after an arbitrator found he acted appropriately and used reasonable force. Arbitrator Katherine Harris ordered that the five-day suspension be overturned following two days of hearings in which we established Teague was suspended despite lack of evidence he had engaged in misconduct warranting discipline. The binding arbitration decision overturned the discipline in total and ordered appropriate back pay and benefits.

The Use of Force

Teague was paired with another officer on the night in question. They were backing officers on a foot pursuit call when a separate radio call for help came out from other officers. Teague could tell that the officer on the radio was fighting with someone by his tone and the rapid breathing during the radio transmission. Upon arrival, Teague observed officers struggling with a suspect who was prone on the roadway. The suspect was not under control; he was pushing himself off the ground and his legs were swinging and kicking. One officer was struggling with the legs and another officer was struggling with the right arm. The suspect was yelling and cursing.

Teague’s partner went to assist with the legs. Teague focused on the left arm opposite the officer struggling with the right arm. Teague observed the suspect kick one officer in the chest. Both officers looked fatigued and very out of breath, and they were groaning in their efforts to get control of the suspect. Officers were yelling for the suspect to stop resisting, but he wouldn’t comply. Teague heard a Taser being deployed on the suspect as he was on his knees struggling with the suspect. While Teague was on his knees to grapple, the suspect turned his face toward him, gathered bloody saliva and spit at Teague. Teague reacted to the spitting assault by moving slightly toward the suspect’s head and delivering two or three 30% to 40% power fist strikes to the suspect’s face. The suspect turned his face away from Teague, and Teague stopped using the strikes. Teague then refocused on the left arm, and eventually the suspect was handcuffed. When supervisors arrived on scene, Teague told them about his use of the fist strikes. The fist strikes were also described in Teague’s police report.

The Arbitration Hearing

Police Chief Blair Ulring relied heavily on the injuries sustained by the suspect, the number of officers present and the opinion of an outside use-of-force trainer he hired to give testimony as the basis for his decision. However, California courts have consistently recognized the difficult position peace officers are placed in. In Brown v. Ranswiler (2009) 171 Cal.App.4th 516, 527-528, the Court stated, “The question is whether a peace officer’s actions were objectively reasonable based on the facts and circumstances confronting the peace officer. The possibility of alternative uses of force is not relevant; there is no requirement to use ‘perfect force.’ The test is ‘highly deferential to the police officer’s need to protect himself and others.’”

It was established at the hearing that the outside trainer hired by Chief Ulring was not recognized as a use-of-force expert. Chief Ulring disregarded the opinion of every use-of-force instructor on the Department in coming to his decision. In fact, the City stipulated to the cumulative testimony that “in house” use-of-force instructors were of the opinion Teague’s use of force was reasonable. We called widely recognized use-of-force expert David Rose as a witness. He testified the use of force was reasonable as described by Teague, and as described by the other officers on scene. He was able to show the use of force was consistent with POST standards, Department policy and past training received by Teague. Evidence at the hearing established all the officers used various force on the suspect during the takedown and struggle. The City was unable to prove any of the injuries were caused by Teague’s use of force.

Similarly, the number of officers present was not relevant. What was relevant was whether the suspect was under control, the only requirement being that the officer used reasonable force. In the case of Graham v. Connor (1989) 490 U.S. 386, the Court set forth the standard for determining whether an officer’s use of force is reasonable. The Court stated, “The ‘reasonableness’ of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene.” Teague’s circumstances fit squarely within the Graham case.

The suspect was resisting arrest and battering peace officers. Teague had to assume he might have been under arrest for even more serious crimes. The suspect was resisting and combative; he might even have been trying to escape. The suspect was assaulting Teague and continuing to batter the other officers. In addition, Teague needed to get control of the suspect’s unsecured right arm. All the conditions of Graham were met. The crime was severe. The suspect posed an immediate threat to the officers. Teague had to make a split-second decision in a tense, uncertain and rapidly evolving circumstance.

Specifically, he had to decide how best to address the spitting assault so he could focus on the other serious danger, the suspect’s right arm. He elected to make several quick fist strikes to the suspect’s face at 30% to 40% force. After the second or third strike, the suspect turned his head away and was no longer in a position to spit on Teague. Teague discontinued the strikes and began trying to control the suspect’s arm. It is significant to note that Teague was using restraint. He was using 30% to 40% force. He was not trying to knock the suspect out; he was not trying to injure him. Teague discontinued the strikes as soon as the threat was eliminated.

Arbitrator Orders That Suspension Be Overturned

As the case was unraveled, it was clear that Internal Affairs jumped to conclusions without considering all the facts. Harris stated in her decision, “There is not one iota of evidence that the Grievant administered the fist strikes with the intent to injure the suspect. Rather, the totality of the evidence leads to the conclusion that the Grievant was merely doing his best to protect himself from injury and subdue a violent suspect.” She ruled as follows: “Thus, the Arbitrator credits Rose’s opinion that an officer is only required to select a force option which is reasonable under the circumstances and that the force option selected by the Grievant, i.e., two to three fist strikes at 30% to 40% capacity to the face, was reasonable under these facts and circumstances.” Arbitrator Harris ordered back pay and benefits in a binding arbitration decision.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Steve Welty is a former Yuba City Police Officer who specializes in labor and employment law representation and disability retirement litigation. He is a Senior Associate of the Labor Department at Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller & Johnsen. He represented William Teague throughout the arbitration proceedings in this case.

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