From Termination to No Discipline

Posted on Monday, May 10, 2010 at 12:00PM
Posted by Lauro A. Paredes

“The grievant shall be reinstated with full seniority, back pay and benefits.” Probation Counselor (PC) Dustin Sullivan waited over a year for his career, his judgment and his reputation to be exonerated.

PC Sullivan was employed with the Contra Costa County Probation Department since 2003. On November 4, 2008, he was working in the maximum security custody wing of the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall (lockdown unit). He was called in to the computer lab to escort a resident juvenile back to his living unit. When he arrived at the computer lab, PC Sullivan ordered the juvenile to be quiet and place his hands behind his back; the juvenile did not comply.

PC Sullivan attempted to handcuff the in-custody in order to ensure cooperation and officer safety. Before PC Sullivan could lock the cuffs, the inmate began to resist and turn. PC Sullivan, a six-year veteran, made a split-second decision that the safest place for himself, the in-custody and the other officers around were to take the in-custody to the ground. Sullivan did not kick, punch or strike the in-custody juvenile but simply took him to the ground and held him there until backup arrived. Neither the in-custody nor any officer was hurt. Throughout the entire incident, from the time the in-custody was ordered to leave the computer class until he was taken to the ground consisted of making verbal threats, not complying with directions, and resisting being handcuffed. During the incident, the in-custody made numerous threatening comments, including “I don’t have to do that” (put his hands behind his back), “fake ass badges,” “I play with guns,” “officer down, officer down!” and “wait until you see me on the outside.”

The incident was documented and then the problems began.

The Department interviewed several witness officers, none of whom contradicted PC Sullivan’s statement that the in-custody had resisted being placed in handcuffs. All of the witnesses, including the in-custody, agreed that the in-custody had been threatening officers. The other witness officers confirmed it was appropriate to handcuff the in-custody for officer safety purposes. The Department even had several witnesses who testified that the in-custody had been resistive just prior to being taken to the ground.

On March 2, 2009, the Contra Costa County Probation Department terminated PC Dustin Sullivan for this incident. The Department found that PC Sullivan had used excessive force. The only witness who could corroborate this excessive force charge was the resistive in-custody.

Lauro Paredes, an attorney with Goyette & Associates, represented Probation Counselor Sullivan during his termination hearing. During the hearing, the Department witnesses were forced to admit that within a use of force continuum, the officer on the scene is in the best position to decide what level of force is appropriate. On cross-examination, the Department’s own witnesses were forced to admit that PC Sullivan reacted in accordance with his training and experience.

Use of force expert and instructor Don Cameron was instrumental in outlining the real world applications of a use of force continuum and the split second decisions that an officer is forced to make in the field.

Just over a year after his termination, Dustin Sullivan was not only reinstated but the arbitrator found that no discipline was appropriate in this case. Sullivan went from termination to zero discipline and was ordered reinstated with full seniority, back pay and benefits.

Dustin Sullivan’s case helps illustrate that the right expert and the right cross-examination can overturn even the most serious discipline and vindicate the actions of officers doing their jobs.


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