July 12--OWASSO -- A police officer whose termination for using "excessive" force was recently overturned by an arbitrator doesn't regret his actions during the arrest in question, his attorney said Wednesday.
The Tulsa World obtained Owasso police videos Monday that captured Lt. Mike Denton three times applying an elbow to the face of Bryan Scott Spradlin, a Collinsville man who was arrested on a public intoxication complaint on June 30, 2011. The city fired Denton in November for using what it said was excessive force.
"Mike agrees, and I agree, that if you just look at that one video of the elbow smacks in the sally port and didn't know anything else, it is excessive," said Patrick Hunt, Denton's attorney. "However, that's not the whole story. The whole story is that he believed the fellow was going to spit on him, and he wanted to prevent him from doing that."
Ruling after a March grievance hearing, arbitrator Edward B. Valverde reduced Denton's firing to a written reprimand last month and ordered him reinstated. In a report this month, Valverde wrote that although Denton used "unreasonable and unnecessary force," his actions did "not rise to the level of excessive force within the meaning of existing case law," and the discipline imposed is "excessive under all the circumstances."
Valverde ordered Denton, an Owasso police officer since 1994, reinstated immediately with back pay and benefits, less any interim earnings, documents indicate.
Through Hunt, Denton declined to be interviewed.
"I don't want to sound dramatic, but you have to be able to use your judgment in a split-second," the attorney said Wednesday. "You just have to. In this case, if he hadn't done it, he would have gotten spit in his eye and maybe an infection. But in another case, you may get killed.
"If you get disciplined for it, so be it. ... He doesn't regret it."
Under provisions of a collective-bargaining agreement between the city and Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 149, the findings of an arbitrator are "final and binding."
City Attorney Julie Lombardi said in an email that the city is deciding whether to allow Denton to go back to work or ask the district court to set aside the arbitrator's decision on the grounds that he exceeded his authority and violated state public policy, she said. The city will announce its plans during a news conference at 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
"Personally, I just don't think that we should have to take him back," City Councilor Patrick Ross said. "I am opposed to his reinstatement, and I will support his termination if there is some way we can overturn the arbitrator's statement."
Ross, a former reserve officer from Illinois, said he has reviewed the videos.
"I've been there," he said. "I've been where he's at." His actions are "simply intolerable in my book."
An internal investigation had determined that "some or all of the force applied" by Denton during the arrest could be ruled excessive, documents indicate. The probe also determined that Denton failed to record with audio and video the entire arrest and escort/booking of Spradlin, as required by department policy.
At a cost of about $50,000, the Owasso Police Department deployed about 35 wearable video cameras from VIEVU, a Seattle-based company, last summer.
On the day of Spradlin's arrest, Denton had his body camera activated while driving to and at the scene, Hunt said. But that camera wasn't on once police arrived at the station, Hunt said, because cameras are stationed inside and outside the building.
"It was the first night the policy was in effect," Hunt said. "His thought was, 'Why would you have your camera on once you're in the station?' Even if it had been on, what you would have seen on Mike's cam might have just been the stomach of Bryan Spradlin.
"The camera is a tool," he said. "You should use it. But it's a mistake to rely on it in full to make a conclusion."
The arbitrator found no video evidence to support or rebut Denton's contention that from his perspective, Spradlin was preparing to spit on him, documents show.
Police Chief Dan Yancey said Denton wasn't disciplined for failure to record the incident because there was a "break-in period" for using the technology.
Rhett Morgan 918-581-8395
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