Officer Wins Firing Appeal

Arbitrator overturns Acevedo termination

Williams (second from left) at his Police Academy graduation in 2008
Williams (second from left) at his Police Academy graduation in 2008 (Photo courtesy of Blayne Williams)

A police officer is back working patrol in the Austin Police Department's Charlie Sector (Central East) after an arbitrator ruled, on an October appeal, that Chief Art Acevedo had overreached in his discipline.

Officer Blayne Williams was fired in Oct­ober 2013, after an Internal Affairs review found that he'd been negligent and dishonest in his handling of an off-duty incident at the Hyatt Regency Hotel on Barton Springs Road, where he held a second job as a security officer. That April, the then-6-year veteran was the first to respond to a guest's complaint about an alarm going off in the ceiling above a ninth floor shower. There, he discovered a ceiling tile had been moved out of place. He took a photograph of the tile (which a disciplinary memo notes had a noticeable hole in it), and he stuck his hand up into the hole. In the corner of the tile, he found a cell phone that was almost assuredly responsible for the nuisance. He turned the phone on. Though it shut off almost immediately (Williams said its battery read 1%), he was able to see "the face of a small Asian child." Williams took the phone downstairs and filed a Hyatt Regency Hotel internal report, telling the hotel's front desk manager Rachael Martinez to look for a corresponding charger and scan the phone for anything incriminating.

Later that week, a Hyatt security staffer extracted information from the phone that led him to believe that a hotel employee was improperly attempting to record hotel guests. A call was made to APD, and Cpl. Terrell Johnson paid a visit to the hotel. He noticed Williams hadn't filed an APD incident report about the suspicious telephone, and neglected to take the phone as evidence (APD officers are expected, as Acevedo wrote in the disciplinary memo, to "treat all off-duty situations as if you're on duty"). Williams learned that Cmdr. Fred Fletcher had signed off on an Internal Affairs review one week after learning of the phone's existence. (A hotel employee was eventually arrested and charged with improper photography.)

That Sept. 3, Williams learned that the reviewers had sustained two policy violations against him: both pertaining to his incident reporting and evidence collection procedures. The notice also advised Wil­liams that the disciplinary range recommendation from his chain of command, including Cmdr. Fletcher, was a "Written Reprimand to 3 days."

Seventeen days later, on Sept. 20, Williams learned of additional violations sustained against him: Neglect of Duty and Honesty. Chief Acevedo determined that Williams had been dishonest about the incident in his IA interview. On Oct. 2, Wil­liams learned of his indefinite suspension (i.e., in civil service terms, termination).

Williams appealed the suspension and had it heard by independent arbitrator Norman Bennett in October. In his opinion, dated Oct. 31, Bennett overturned the indefinite suspension, and instead imposed a 15-day suspension. In doing so, he noted that the second notice of sustained allegations was issued "without any additional complaint ... additional factual allegations, or ... additional policy violations," and came without the involvement of any additional investigations by Internal Affairs. He also noted that Acevedo's disciplinary memo points to "false, conflicting, and/or contradictory statements" made by Williams during his IA and disciplinary hearings – though Sgt. Oliver Tate, the only IA investigator assigned to Williams' case, testified during the appeal that he "didn't know" what exactly Williams had been charged with being dishonest about. Further, Bennett noted, Acevedo "candidly acknowledged" that the allegations of Williams' dishonesty (he said they concerned "his motivation for the failure to act as a police officer") were "our opinion" – that is, not entirely objective. Bennett determined the evidence "not sufficient to establish that the Appellant lied about his level of suspicion" and ruled the honesty charge inaccurate.

Beyond that, Bennett took issue with Acevedo's assessment of Williams' previous record. Nineteen months before the cell phone incident, in Sept. 2011, Williams had been issued a 90-day Agreed Suspension for shoving an elderly person, over an ATM machine dispute, while off duty. That suspension came with a two-year probationary period, during which Williams could have been suspended indefinitely if he engaged in similar acts of misconduct. Failing to submit an incident report has little or nothing to do with assaulting an elderly person, Bennett determined, ruling out Acevedo's use of past discipline as grounds for an indefinite suspension.

Bennett made clear that he believed the sustained allegations – compounded with "the cited prior discipline" – should result in a temporary suspension of more than two weeks. As a hearing examiner, however, Bennett only had the authority to reduce indefinite suspensions to temporary suspensions of 15 or fewer days.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin Police DepartmentOfficer Blayne Williams, Austin Police Department, Blayne Williams, Art Acevedo, Hyatt Hotel, Norman Bennett

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