OKLAHOMA CITY, OK When a passing motorist yelled “Road rage sucks” at Oklahoma City police Sgt. Matthew Downing during a January 2014 traffic stop, Downing chased the man down in a convenience store, wrestled him to the ground and arrested him.
A supervisor who soon arrived disagreed with Downing’s use of force and subsequent arrest and released the man.
Police Chief Bill Citty directed the department’s Office of Professional Standards to conduct a criminal investigation into the incident.
In February, Downing pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery and was sentenced to 90 days’ probation. That same day, he resigned from the department, where leaders say he was still under administrative investigation for the incident. Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater said Downing’s guilty plea and resignation were part of his plea agreement, which is typical in criminal cases involving police officers.
Disciplining officers is one of the toughest parts of his job, Citty said.
“Even though I don’t always succeed, getting everything right in the management of the police department is important to me, especially discipline,” Citty said. “In disciplining employees, getting it right means being fair. Of all things, I want to be known as being fair to our employees. Getting it right can also impact the public’s trust in our department.”
In the past decade, the Oklahoma City Police Department has fired, demoted, suspended or accepted the resignations of at least 63 officers for everything from drinking and drug use to consorting with prostitutes to excessive use of force.
At a time when police conduct and discipline is coming under review nationwide, The Oklahoman examined discipline meted out to members of the Oklahoma City Police Department in recent years.
•In several cases, the department rehired officers it had fired.
•Between 2005 and March 2015, six officers who lost their jobs for offenses ranging from driving under the influence, to lying, to criminal misconduct involving prostitution, were rehired after their cases went to arbitration.
•The department refuses to release the names of 25 officers who resigned while under investigation and the reason why. Such secrecy raises questions about whether the officers continued their law enforcement careers elsewhere and limits the public’s knowledge of possible police misconduct, police accountability experts and open records advocates say.
•A handful of officers have been suspended without pay more than once.
The way a department handles officer discipline is central to policing, said Sam Walker, professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and an expert on police accountability.
“Police officers have powers no other public officials have — to deprive people of their liberty, to arrest,” Walker said. “They are legally authorized to use physical force, and they are legally authorized to use deadly force. Teachers, social workers, no other public workers have such powers. We have to have the highest personnel standards.”
Any time someone is terminated or resigns under investigation, police departments are required to send notice to the Council on Law Enforcement Education within 30 days, according to state laws that govern police work. CLEET, the training and regulatory agency of Oklahoma law enforcement, can open an administrative investigation to see if its own policies have been violated.
Officers convicted of any felony for crimes involving moral turpitude or domestic violence are banned from doing police work indefinitely in Oklahoma. Other types of discipline are handled on a case-by-case basis. A disciplinary committee can issue a letter of reprimand, for example, or suspend for a certain period of time the officer’s certification under state law.
But the process doesn’t always go as planned. A 2013 investigation by Oklahoma Watch, an online investigative journalism organization, uncovered a dozen cases between 2003 and 2011 in which law officers convicted of felonies still were certified as peace officers by CLEET.
Fired and rehired
Since 2005, the Oklahoma City department has rehired six officers it fired, according to a response to an open records request filed by The Oklahoman. Three were fired for untruthfulness, one for criminal misconduct involving prostitution, another for driving under the influence and another for excessive use of force.
All six appealed their terminations to an arbitrator who ruled in their favor.
City officials declined an open records request seeking the identity of the rehired officers, as well as the final arbitration decision that led to their reinstatement, saying they were not required to do so and that the release of some personnel records is a “clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
Citty said while he supports due process for officers, he opposes the binding arbitration provisions included in the police union contract that allow officers a chance to formally challenge discipline or a dismissal. Under the contract, an arbitrator hears from both the officer and the department, then makes a decision that is legally binding under state law, meaning it can’t be overturned in court.
Citty has been pushing to change state law so departments could appeal arbitration decisions in court.
“It does not benefit law enforcement. It does not benefit the public,” he said of the current system.
But John George, president of the Oklahoma City Fraternal Order of the Police, disagrees, saying arbitration is a fair and sound process.
“You have a neutral arbitrator picked by the city and the FOP that hears the case and makes a ruling,” George said. “The reason the ruling should be binding, if not, all those cases will go to district court, which will cost a lot more money and tie up the court system.”
Similar scenarios play out at police departments throughout the country, which Walker, the police accountability expert, finds troubling.
“One thing that concerns me is that very often the police unions representing the officers have more experienced attorneys, and they really know how to mount an aggressive case and they simply out-lawyer the city attorneys,” Walker said.
Brian Buchner, president of National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement, called binding arbitration in police discipline cases, a “national problem that happens across the country.”
“They (the police departments) want to separate the employees and now they’re forced to take them back,” he said. “What if the officer was separated for an integrity issue?”
Three Oklahoma City officers were rehired after being initially fired for lying, records show.
Questions surrounding a rehired officer’s integrity could dismantle a later case, Buchner said.
Resigned under investigation
In the last decade, 25 Oklahoma City police officers voluntarily resigned while under internal investigation by the department for misconduct or violating department policies, but the public has no way of finding out who resigned or why.
A review of media accounts found three of those cases.
In 2011, Willie Williams and Christopher Gayhart were accused of collecting paychecks while not working assigned shifts. Both of the former officers were arrested and charged with obtaining money under false pretenses.
Both men pleaded guilty, but neither was sent to prison, court records show.
Williams was ordered to pay restitution and received a five-year deferred sentence. Gayhart received a six-year deferred sentence, was ordered to pay court costs, restitution and surrender his law enforcement certification.
David Ellis, a former captain, resigned after he allowed a German man impersonating a law enforcement officer to ride and train with the department. Ellis was never charged with any crime.
The state’s open records law doesn’t prohibit the department from providing names of officers who resign under investigation, said Joey Senat, an Oklahoma State University associate professor of media law, but public bodies often refuse to do so.
The fact that the department won’t name officers who resigned while under investigation after being accused of wrongdoing is a matter of public concern, Senat said.
“Which officers are jumping from job to job without being disciplined for wrongdoing?” he said.
The public, Senat said, has no way of finding out.
“You have police officers who resign under a cloud, an investigation, who are then free to go be rehired by another police department,” Senat said.
Citty said it’s incumbent on police departments to conduct background checks on potential hires to avoid such scenarios. Departments also should have each new hire sign a waiver allowing release of personnel records from previous employers, he added.
Citty, though, said he has a reason for allowing officers to resign under investigation. If he fires them, there’s a good chance an officer will fight the dismissal through arbitration, win and be returned to duty. The only surefire way to rid the department of an officer accused of misconduct is to allow that officer to resign, Citty said.
Three officers were suspended without pay more than once during the time period reviewed by The Oklahoman.
Then-Sgt. Frank Torres was suspended for improper use of force and an unspecified “policy violation.” He also was punished for forcefully putting his boot on the head of a suspect already in custody.
Anthony Germany was disciplined for a DUI and again for drinking alcohol on duty.
Gustavo Cabello, was suspended for conduct unbecoming an officer and an unspecified policy violation.
Michael Sumpter was a police recruit when he was arrested and charged with domestic assault in the presence of a child in 2010. The department fired Sumpter the same year, but a judge dismissed the case.
He is one of six officers fired between 2005 and March.
Alan Cook was fired in 2007 after being accused of threatening somebody with bodily harm during an “off-duty disturbance.” He was never charged with a crime, records show.
Cody Harbison, was terminated for obtaining prescription pain medications without a prescription, department records show. Harbison, a police recruit who was fired in 2009, also was never charged with a crime, court records show.
The department terminated Lenon Williams in 2005 amid allegations that he worked an extra job without authorization while he was still in the Police Academy and Field Training Program, attempted to use his position as a police officer to influence a citizen during a civil dispute and that he was untruthful in the investigation.
Conduct unbecoming a police officer — namely foul language — as well as allegations of inability to perform physical training and lying in an administrative investigation, cost Johnny White his job in 2005.
The police department dismissed Leo Nash for untruthfulness during an investigation tied to allegations of dereliction of duty. The officer failed to perform his job by not responding to a call, according to the police department.
The police department provided a list of 27 incidents from the decade that resulted in officers being suspended without pay or given a disciplinary transfer.
Among the violations were drinking alcohol on duty, insubordination, improper use of force, injury car accidents, conduct unbecoming an officer and use of a controlled dangerous substance.