Point Austin: Undue Process
Arbitrator's reinstatement of APD officer strains justice and belief
It's useful to keep in mind Officer Gary Griffin's remarks concerning his actions on July 1, 2006, when he "beat the shit out of" Joseph Cruz for the crime of falling asleep at a bus stop. The beating, along with Griffin's subsequent commentary, was recorded on the officer's in-car video, and that recording served as the primary evidence cited by interim APD Chief Cathy Ellison when she terminated Griffin the following December for excessive use of force, for dishonesty at the time and afterward, and for bringing "discredit upon himself, the Austin Police Department, and the City of Austin." Ellison's decision was effectively overturned Dec. 3 by arbitration hearing examiner Don B. Hays, who ruled that the department had not successfully proven all its allegations against Griffin and that, moreover, inadequate APD training is partly to blame for the 10-year veteran officer's offense against Cruz. Therefore, ruled Hays, with additional retraining and psychiatric review, Griffin should be returned to the force. Although in qualifying his decision, Hays probably overstepped his up-or-down authority, overruling the arbitrator would have been virtually impossible – and a few days later, Chief Art Acevedo announced that Hays' decision would not be appealed.
We've linked both the video and Hays' lengthy decision to this column in the sidebar below, and readers can decide for themselves if they think either makes any sense. To these eyes, Griffin carried out an entirely unprovoked and undeserved beating against a man half his size and – whatever his previous record – no longer deserves to be a police officer. The arbitrator's effective exoneration of Griffin, moreover, exhibits a strained and tortured logic in concluding that the officer's admittedly excessive use of force was "never proven to be anything more sinister than gross negligence." To Hays, Ellison insufficiently allowed for Griffin's "outstanding record as an honest and reliable police officer, and his honest perceptions on this occasion," in deciding that his actions and his subsequent lying about them, as well as his refusal to acknowledge that he had done anything wrong, merited termination. "Given that attitude," Ellison had concluded, "it is my belief that any discipline other than suspension would not change or correct his behavior."
Beyond recommending "sensitivity therapy" for Griffin, Hays never addresses Ellison's final judgment, and his decision means that – following actions for which you or I would certainly be liable for felony assault – Gary Griffin is once again a police officer.
I don't object to the review and arbitration process that in this case delivered a poor decision (in others it has performed well), although I find it amusing that in a state otherwise so hostile to unions, only police officers under union contracts are accorded employment due process the rest of us can only dream of. And I don't claim that on the evidence of this one incident, Officer Griffin is an unredeemable person. In the initial moments, he behaved both thoughtlessly and foolishly – neither waiting for EMS officers to examine the sleeping Cruz nor even ever identifying himself as a police officer – and he was clearly taken by surprise when the sleeping Cruz flailed his arms in an attempt to get away from whomever was disturbing him.
But once surprised, Griffin immediately lost his temper and began beating Cruz with his baton, fist, and knees, even after emergency personnel arrived and attempted to calm Griffin down and separate the two men. (Early on, the video shows, he and another responder have control of Cruz's arms, but Griffin loses one because he's more determined to beat Cruz on the chest with his baton.) After he'd broken Cruz's nose with repeated, undefended punches to his face, Griffin indicated, "All that blood [pouring from Cruz's nose] is from me punching him," even while the firefighters were asking him to stop. The video thoroughly documents that Cruz never "swung" at Griffin nor attempted to "assault" him, although he was initially charged with the latter offense (until the DA's office saw the video), and in disciplinary proceedings, Griffin continued to make that dishonest claim.
The visibly excessive force Griffin used to beat an uncomprehending Cruz (afterward revealed to be mentally ill) was luckily insufficient to do even greater damage. As Chief Ellison understood, this was not just conduct unbecoming an otherwise reformable police officer; it was an egregious violation of Griffin's fundamental responsibilities to serve and protect the public, and one for which an officer shouldn't get a second chance with a badge and a gun.
It's a damn shame that arbitrator Hays couldn't, or wouldn't, understand that.
Change the Culture
The story will not end here. Griffin will receive psychiatric review and additional training, and one useful outcome may be that in response to the Hays ruling, the department's use-of-force policies may become somewhat more explicit and restrained. (But I don't buy the arbitrator's argument that Griffin might not have been taught the true limits of force; you don't need special "training" to understand that with reinforcements at your side, you don't beat a smaller, defenseless man into submission.) Perhaps indeed Griffin will have learned his lesson, the department will closely monitor his conduct, and the Cruz beating will be an isolated incident.
Cruz and his family have filed a federal lawsuit against Griffin and the APD, and maybe that will bring some redress to them and some institutional reform to Austin and the APD. It would be nice to live in a city and state where police officers are not inevitably the first, and ill-trained, responders to mental-health calls. It would be even better to live in a place where police officers did not receive reflexive allowance to engage in dangerous or even criminal conduct that we would never allow ourselves.