Critics are questioning a Civil Service Commission hearing officers decision to overturn the suspension of a Denver police officer who was accused of using excessive force in the arrest of a shoplifting suspect.
Videotape shows officer Rick Guzman handcuffing the suspect in a small room at the Kmart on Alameda near South Broadway in 2007. The officer then shoves the suspect against the wall, then takes him down to the floor.
Manager of Safety Alex Martinez suspended Guzman for four days, but a hearing officer overturned that suspension, saying there was no evidence the officers actions exceeded reasonable force.
Its the third time this year that a disciplinary decision by Martinez has been overturned.
When asked if the Civil Service Commission is a rubber stamp for the police union, Executive Director Earl Peterson said, No, absolutely not.
Peterson said the disciplinary process is a multi-step process and that hearing officers are just one step in that process.
While they fall under the umbrella of the Civil Service Commission, theyre independent. They are independent for the purpose of providing a third party oversight of the discipline thats administered, Peterson said.
When asked if Denvers hearing officers are qualified, Peterson responded, Yes, theyre qualified. Theyre licensed attorneys, labor attorneys who understand due process rights.
Peterson said that in the Guzman case, the hearing officer didnt take the video into account because there was no proof that it hadnt been altered.
He said there are questions about the videos admissibility in court.
Peterson noted that the videotape was supplied anonymously and that the person involved refused to testify.
Those things didnt bode well, he said.
The police captain who conducted the police departments internal disciplinary hearing said he gave the officer the opportunity to talk on his own behalf but he chose not to.
The captain concluded that what he observed on the videotape was not reasonable or appropriate.
Peterson said that although the hearing officer allowed the tape to be viewed, it was not verified.
He said the next step in the disciplinary process is for the safety manager to decide whether to appeal the hearing officers decision to the entire Civil Service Commission Board.
The board is made up of civilians who look at the case then render a decision.
They may vote to uphold the hearing officer, they may vote to overturn him, Peterson said.
The executive director said the recent spate of high profile police discipline cases is unusual.
He estimates that out of the five to 25 discipline cases filed every year, only one or two end up being high profile.
He said most cases are settled without a problem and without an appeal.
Peterson said that in the cases that are appealed, the commission tries at all times to be fair.
If things are out of whack a little bit at times, rest assured that things will be corrected, he said.
Peterson said the Civil Service Board has reviewed two recent high profile cases but has not yet ruled on them.
One involves officers who used batons and pepper spray on some customers outside the Denver Diner. The other involves officers accused of lying about a high speed chase.
He said decision are expected in those two cases within the next two months.
Peterson also said that the board will also look into the DeHerrera case later this year.
Thats where two officers were caught on videotape using a great deal of force against Michael DeHerrera, who was talking to his father on his cellphone.
The officers were initially suspended without pay, but the then manager of safety reversed course and fired the officers.
A panel of hearing officers reinstated the officers saying it was illegal to change the original punishment.
The manager appealed their decision and the Civil Service Board upheld the appeal.
The Civil Service Board will look at the evidence in the case later this year and will then render a final decision.
Peterson said that if the officers dont agree with the final decision, they can appeal to District Court and ultimately up to the state Supreme Court.
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