Former Austin Police Department rookie Officer Ramon Perez filed a civil lawsuit on Dec. 19 against the department, his former supervisors, and an APD psychologist, claiming he was forced to resign because of his religious beliefs after he refused to comply with a supervisor's order to use excessive force on a suspect. In essence, Perez argues, he was forced to resign, in violation of his constitutional rights, after refusing to violate the rights of another.
According to the lawsuit, in January 2005, Perez, then a rookie still on probation and thus, notably, not subject to civil-service law protection was "punitively transferred" from a day patrol shift to a night shift because he'd refused a senior officer's order to use his electroshock Taser gun on an elderly man in questionable health who was suspected of family violence. On Jan. 15, Perez responded to a domestic-violence call where he met a woman who said her husband had pushed her down and hurt her arms. While interviewing the woman outside her home, Perez said her husband came outside, keys and coffee in hand, and headed to his car in an attempt to leave. Perez told him to stop, he said, but before he could direct the man further, his backup, senior police Officer Robert Paranich "lunged" at the man from behind, causing the man to lose his balance. "I considered that an escalation of force," Perez said, and not a controlled way to get the man under control with the least amount of force possible as is required by APD policy. While the man struggled to regain his balance, Perez said Paranich ordered him to use his Taser on the man; Perez refused because the man wasn't resisting arrest, and Perez was sure the man could be placed under arrest with lesser force. Additionally, Perez said, the man appeared to be in poor health and a likely candidate for a heart attack two additional factors APD's Taser policy asks officers to consider before using the weapon.
In the end, Perez and Paranich were able to get the man on the ground and in cuffs with no more force than soft-hand control, Perez said a fact that proves the Taser was not needed: "If more force were necessary, then we wouldn't be able to take him down," he said at a press conference. "That means I did the constitutionally correct thing" and followed APD policy.
Nonetheless, shortly thereafter, Perez and his attorney Derek Howard say, Perez was transferred to the night shift. Just two months later shortly after Perez again questioned his supervisors, Lt. Daniel Zahara and Sgt. Jesse Brown, in this case about their apparent disapproval of his handling of a high-risk car stop in connection with APD Gang Suppression Unit detectives Perez said Brown ordered him to report to APD psychologist Carol Logan for a meeting designed to help facilitate "better communication" between Perez and Brown. Perez said he was told the session with Logan would be spent practicing "word games" a fact he said Logan confirmed but that in fact, unbeknown to Perez, the meeting was intended as a fit-for-duty review, the outcome of which could bolster the supervisors' desire to terminate Perez.
Indeed, Logan's four-page report mentions nothing about word games and instead focuses almost entirely on Perez's moral and religious beliefs, which Logan concludes are so strong they are an "impairment" to his ability to be a police officer. The report concludes that Perez, a self-described nondenominational fundamentalist Christian, is in fact so impaired by his moral convictions that he is incapable of taking in and processing information especially that which may be in conflict with his already-held beliefs. Perez is "defensive" and not able to take in "feedback" from supervisors, she wrote.
"Perez has a well-developed set of personal beliefs. These seem to be based primarily on his religious beliefs and it is obvious that he has spent a lot of time reflecting upon and developing these views," she wrote. "He takes pride in the fact that he is an ordained minister who on occasion preaches to congregations in the Austin area and that he and his wife home-school their children in accordance with their value system." She concludes that as "admirable as these beliefs may be, they seem to play a role in his defensiveness in that they provide him with a rationale for explaining how his views differ with others."
Only a month later, Perez was given a choice: resign from the department and keep his peace officer license or be fired and lose his license and, with it, any ability to work as a cop elsewhere. Still unclear why he was being fired the city of Austin fought Perez's request for copies of Logan's report for more than a year, until Attorney General Greg Abbott's office stepped in, ordering the city to release the record Perez chose to resign and keep his license. Until Abbott ordered the city to release the document this fall, Perez believed Logan's report said only "nice things" about his religious beliefs, which is what he'd been told by APD supervisors, Howard said.
Anne Morgan, the city's chief litigator, told the Statesman that the city does not discriminate based on religion and that Perez was fired for poor performance. But the contents of the report suggest that the city did use Perez's religious beliefs, in violation of the First Amendment, as a means to force him out of his job a scheme Howard suspects was undertaken because Perez (who worked as an engineer before entering the police academy at 41 years old and who was honored with the Ernie Hinckle Humanitarian Award for compassion, integrity, and leadership by his fellow cadets) bucked the power system by refusing to comply with an unlawful and unconstitutional order to use excessive force on a suspect. "It is fair to say that we want to be safe in our communities," Howard said. "We want [our] police officers to do their job and enforce the law, and [we] also want them to obey the law." And that, he continued, includes an "ethical and moral responsibility and a constitutional right to refuse" an unlawful order.
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