Pittsfield fights arbiter's decision to reinstate fired police officer
PITTSFIELD — An arbitrator has concluded a fired city police officer should be reinstated, but the city and Berkshire District Attorney's office are pushing back.
After a two-day hearing in February, the arbitrator ruled Officer Dale Eason should have received only a three-day suspension for using misleading words in an arrest report last year. He said Eason must be reinstated and receive all back pay and benefits to which he's entitled.
"There was no just cause to terminate [Eason] for three misleading words in his arrest report," arbitrator Michael W. Stutz wrote in his April 30 decision.
The city, however, has filed a civil suit against the Local 447 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers seeking to have that arbitrator's decision vacated and keep Eason from returning to the force. The complaint, filed by the city, claims reinstating Eason is prohibited by law.
Eason, a 20-year-veteran of the department, was fired on Sept. 7 for conduct unbecoming a police officer, untruthfulness and falsifying records in connection with a shoplifting arrest on Feb. 23, 2016, outside the Big Y on West Street.
In his arrest report, Eason claimed the suspect was thrashing her body around in the cruiser after being taken into custody and was removed "for her safety." But video of the arrest shows Eason removing the suspect from his cruiser and placing her on the ground while a store employee takes a photo.
The store uses such photos of larceny suspects to obtain trespass orders and to post inside the store to alert staff of those who are not permitted.
An internal investigation determined Eason should be fired for his transgressions in the handling of that arrest.
The charges against that suspect were eventually dropped by the DA's office after their attorney produced the surveillance video that appeared to contradict Eason's account.
That decision was taken to arbitration, in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the department's union. Both parties agreed to have the arbitration heard by Stutz, of the American Arbitration Association.
After the arbitration hearing, held on Feb. 14-15, Stutz concluded the city had just cause to discipline Eason, but not to fire him.
"(Eason) wanted to conceal the real reason for removing the prisoner by falsely reporting that it was safety-related," Stutz wrote. "I believe (Eason) referred to safety to deflect the readers of his report away from his bad judgment."
"This intentional inaccuracy violated (Eason's) obligation to be absolutely truthful," he wrote.
However, Stutz determined the circumstances that led to Eason's firing should have only incurred a three-day suspension and that he should be reinstated and receive lost benefits and wages including overtime.
He concluded Eason's misconduct was not a "capital offense" in the context of employment and did not rise to the level of an offense for which he should have been fired.
During an internal investigation and at arbitration, Eason admitted he removed the suspect for a photograph and that it was a mistake to have done so.
"Other officers with similar misconduct received less harsh discipline or none at all," Stutz said.
According to an attorney familiar with the case, the arbitrator's decision is legally binding, and it will have to be determined by Berkshire Superior Court whether that decision violates the law or public policy.
The city, however, claims reinstatement would violate public policy of not allowing an officer who is untruthful to remain employed with the department.
"As a result of Eason's inability to testify in criminal proceedings, he is unfit to serve as a Pittsfield Police Officer," according to the civil complaint, which was filed May 11 in Berkshire Superior Court.
The suit also cited a decision by the Berkshire District Attorney's office not to prosecute cases involving Eason. The DA's office said if Eason is reinstated, it will not call him to testify in any criminal matter, "whether presently pending or in the future."
In a notice sent to Police Chief Michael Wynn and Mayor Linda Tyer, District Attorney David F. Capeless laid out the three conditions under which his office would prosecute cases in which Eason was involved.
One, if at least one other officer was present and can personally testify to all of Eason's interactions with the public, two, testimony from officers besides Eason can credibly support criminal charges and third, the DA's office determines the charges should be prosecuted.
According to court files, the union argued negative publicity concerning the arrest of an 88-year-old woman in June 2015 prejudiced the city against Eason and influenced its decision to fire him.
In that incident, Eason and another officer were sent to an incorrect address for a disturbance call.
That encounter led to the woman being "ground stabilized" and arrested, after allegedly threatening the officers with a knife. The charges against the woman were dropped soon after.
In internal emails in connection with the arrest, obtained by The Eagle, now-retired Capt. David Granger described Eason as one of the department's "most problematic officers when it comes to the use of force and good judgment."
The city also cited prior incidents of discipline against Eason as part of its argument why he should not be reinstated:
- In 2011, Eason was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer, which resulted in his demotion from the department's detective bureau and a three-day suspension.
- Also in 2011, Eason was charged a second time with conduct unbecoming and was given a verbal reprimand.
- In 2012, he was counseled for neglect of duty.
- In 2013, he received a verbal reprimand for unauthorized absences.
In his analysis, Stutz said "residual bad feelings" from the June 2015 arrest "may have, however slightly," affected (Wynn's) decision to terminate (Eason)."
"I believe that a 20-year officer, like (Eason), can be rehabilitated and retrained so that his future reports will be accurate," Stutz wrote in his conclusion.
News of the civil suit comes about three weeks after the city settled a lawsuit from former Pittsfield officer Mark Lenihan, who alleged he was retaliated against for alerting the city to improper hiring practices within the department. The city and department admit to no wrongdoing in light of the settlement and continue to dispute the allegations.
Meanwhile, another lawsuit alleging retaliation from the department for whistleblowing is still pending in U.S. District Court and a complaint alleging discrimination and harassment of a female officer remains open.
Reach staff writer Bob Dunn at 413-496-6249 or @BobDunn413 on Twitter.
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.