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Richmond Officer Reinstated

Posted on Wednesday, February 01, 2006 at 12:00PM
Posted by Todd Simonson

Arbitrator Barbara Kong-Brown recently reinstated Richmond Police Officer Jeff Tyner to work nearly two years after he was unjustly terminated for a traffic accident. Thanks to former Acting Richmond Police Chief Charles Bennett, Jeff was forced to fight for his job back. Thanks to support from the PORAC Legal Defense Fund, he prevailed.

At the time that Jeff was terminated, Chief Bennett was apparently in charge of getting rid of officers by any means necessary in order to prevent the horribly mismanaged City of Richmond from declaring bankruptcy. Chief Bennett’s problem in this case was that no Richmond officer had ever been fired for a first traffic accident. So, he played dirty. Bennett added a completely unsupportable allegation of “untruthfulness” to the multitude of other unsupportable charges against Jeff, likely precluding Jeff from obtaining a law enforcement job elsewhere. Fortunately, an arbitrator would have the ultimate say on the matter.

On the morning of the accident, Jeff came in three hours before the start of his regular shift to help clear up calls that had stacked up the previous night. Not even an hour into his extended shift, one of Jeff’s co-workers broadcasted a foot pursuit of a narcotics suspect in an area of Richmond known for drugs, violence and people more than willing to take on the police. Jeff was relatively close to the pursuit and responded Code Three. Unfortunately, as often can happen during Code Three responses, Jeff became involved in a fairly serious collision with a civilian vehicle at an intersection after the civilian ignored Jeff’s lights and siren and pulled in front of his police car.

Jeff and the civilian were both injured. Jeff sustained several cuts, including a gash to his head, severe back pain and headaches that lasted for weeks. He was prescribed pain medication and took some of it before being told to return to the Police Department to give a statement. Even a cursory review of the recording of that interview clearly demonstrates that Jeff was confused, traumatized and quite emotional when answering the CHP’s questions only hours after the collision. When asked his vehicle’s speed before the collision, Jeff’s answer was the following: “I would say my speed was around–because I had just turned–I don’t know, I would say somewhere–I don’t know. I would say somewhere in the 30 to 40, maybe 30 to 40.” That equivocal statement alone is what Chief Bennett relied upon in his attempt to end Jeff’s livelihood.

The CHP conducted an investigation into the accident, which included witness interviews and accident reconstruction. At least one of the witnesses to the accident estimated Jeff’s speed before the collision to be 30-35 miles per hour. However, the CHP’s measurements and calculations rendered a speed estimate for Jeff’s car of somewhere between 53 and 65 miles per hour before the two cars collided. Incredibly, Chief Bennett, without ever actually listening to the tape of Jeff’s interview with the investigators, unilaterally called Jeff’s guess at his speed “untruthful” when compared to the CHP’s speed estimate and recommended termination.

The arbitration started in December and Bennett was the first witness for the City of Richmond. During his testimony, he was finally compelled to listen to the recording of Jeff’s interview for the first time and was forced to admit that Jeff sounded emotional and confused. When asked to reconcile why an independent witness might have estimated the same speed that Jeff had, Chief Bennett dismissed the civilian witness’ honest belief as an amateur mistake when compared with Jeff’s “training in speed estimation”. When asked to identify the type of training that Jeff had received on the subject of speed estimation, Chief Bennett firmly stated that Jeff had been trained to estimate a vehicle’s speed during the handheld radar class he took in the police academy. However, when prodded on the issue, the Chief had no idea which police academy Jeff had attended and had never bothered to check Jeff’s academy record before asserting his knowledge of the curriculum. He guessed. He was wrong. Jeff had never attended a handheld radar class or received training to estimate the speed of a vehicle.

Ironically, Chief Bennett had been found at fault in his own on-duty injury accident only months prior to Jeff’s accident. Two weeks following Bennett’s accident, the CHP asked him to estimate his speed prior to the collision that sent him to the hospital and caused significant damage to the other vehicles involved. His response: “I don’t remember.” When asked what might have happened with Jeff’s case had Jeff refrained from his estimate and offered the same “I don’t remember” response, Bennett had to admit that the allegation of untruthfulness would never have been possible.

Not that Chief Bennett could have ever been fired over his own accident with the internal investigation that he devised for himself. Amazingly enough, Bennett evaluated his own accident using a Departmental “formula” which allows for a lot of leeway for scoring depending upon the person doing the evaluating. Bennett gave himself a much lower score than the formula seemed to dictate and recommended a one day suspension for himself. The latest Acting Chief at Richmond PD, Terry Hudson, was asked during the arbitration to independently evaluate Bennett’s accident using the same formula and came up with a much higher score than Bennett had. Hudson also thought it “odd” that Bennett had not asked a neutral third party to evaluate his accident and recommend discipline.

Chief Hudson, who took over the helm from Bennett on January 1st and seemed to have a much sunnier disposition than his predecessor, did not fare much better as the second witness for the City. He offered testimony about two memos that he had written regarding Jeff’s accident which called his credibility into serious question, testimony that Arbitrator Barbara Kong-Brown later wrote “troubled” her. Not surprisingly, during a break in the middle of the cross-examination of Chief Hudson, the attorney for the City finally started talking seriously about a settlement offer. A tentative agreement was reached in the middle of the arbitration where Jeff was to be reinstated with approximately nine months of back pay and benefits pending acceptance of the agreement by the Richmond City Council.

This is the same Richmond City Council that mismanaged the city onto the verge of bankruptcy. In their infinite wisdom, the council members rejected the tentative settlement agreement and the arbitration was forced to continue over the course of the following months, finally ending on a high note with Jeff’s consistent and credible testimony.

It was worth the wait. Arbitrator Barbara Kong-Brown’s award almost completely exonerated Jeff. She agreed that Jeff was not untruthful to investigators and had not violated several of the driving-related allegations lumped on by the Department, including driving Code Three without authorization and without his siren activated. Thanks to the Richmond City Council’s foresight, Jeff ended up receiving a much shorter suspension than he would have under the settlement agreement and will end up being paid nearly 20 months of back pay and benefits.

Jeff is just glad that the odyssey is over and looks forward to being able to provide for his family again. Jeff is eternally grateful to the PORAC LDF for ensuring he received the due process to which he was entitled and the mid-year Christmas presents that will include his badge wrapped in a nice fat paycheck.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.