Civil Liberties

St. Paul Arbitrator Reinstates Cop Fired in Pepper Spray-in-the-Ear Incident Caught on Tape

What's the police chief think he is? In charge?


got his job back

Last summer, the police chief in St. Paul, Minnesota said he wanted to fire Officer Matthew Gorans, who was involved in a violent arrest that had been recorded by a bystander. Gorans wasn't on that video, but he was seen on squad car video the city released, which showed him dragging Eric Hightower, the suspect resisting arrest, into the backseat by his hair and then pepper spraying him in the ear. Gorans' putative penalty was harsher than for the cop seen on the bystander video kicking Hightower, who was suspended for 30 days.

Nevertheless, both officers filed union grievances and this week Gorans, who had cost the city of St. Paul $249,000 in a settlement for an unrelated police brutality claim in 2010, got his job back from an arbitrator. Via the St. Paul Pioneer Press:

The St. Paul Police-Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission found that Gorans intentionally sprayed pepper spray into Hightower's ear during the arrest, but state arbitrator Harley Ogata disagreed. He also found Gorans justified in pulling Hightower into a squad car by his hair as the man resisted officers' attempts to get him in the cruiser.

Ogata ruled that Gorans should be suspended for one day for not filing a complete police report.

"The arbitration decision confirms that officers were dealing with a volatile and rapidly developing situation involving a known dangerous individual with a history of violence, and of resisting and evading arrest," Chris Wachtler, St. Paul Police Federation attorney, said in a statement Monday. "The state-appointed, neutral arbitrator in this case heard the testimony of 20 witnesses over the course of three days, thoroughly and completely reviewed the evidence, and reached the correct decision."

Police Chief Thomas Smith said Monday afternoon he hadn't had a chance to review the findings.

"Obviously, I have to respect the process and live with the arbitrator's decision," he said.

The arbitrator reportedly also wrote that "had the city proved that the grievant had intentionally sprayed Hightower in the ear, a discharge might have been sustained," apparently dismissing the finding of the Internal Affairs commission. The arbitrator also complained the commission didn't seek the opinion of a "use of force trainer" about the pepper spray in the ear. Prosecutors declined to charge Gorans or the other cop, finding insufficient evidence to prove intent beyond a reasonable doubt, but the local FBI office said it was looking into civil rights violations that could have occurred during the arrest. A lawsuit by the police union over release of the squad car video without the officers' faces blurred out, meanwhile, is ongoing.

The arbitrator's decision is not appealable, so Gorans is back on the job even though the police chief doesn't want him there, because that's the deal St. Paul's political leaders gave the city's employees, a similar deal police unions across the country have. They've extended privileges to police officers and other public employees that give them the kind of job security and protections jobs with that kind of potential to damage the lives of residents (through police abuse or a poor education) should never have.

h/t jimbo