Two former Oklahoma police officers charged with manslaughter in the fatal 2021 shooting of an unarmed black man must be reinstated and receive retribution, ordered the referees who heard their cases.
In their findings, two arbitrators separately concluded that the former officers, Nathan Ronan and Robert Hinkle, who shot Quadry Sanders, 29, a dozen times on Dec. 5, 2021, in Lawton, Oklahoma, were wrongfully dismissed because the officers had reasonably deemed the use of force necessary.
An attorney for the officers, Gary James, said by phone on Wednesday that his clients were relieved by the decisions, made on May 30, and looked forward to getting back to work, although it wasn’t clear when exactly that would be. . The City Manager of Lawton fired both officers in January 2022.
John Ratliff, the interim Lawton city manager, said by phone that « the city is disappointed with the outcome » and that city officials will convene a special council meeting next Thursday to discuss the umpires’ findings.
Both officers are still facing first-degree manslaughter charges in Comanche County and a lawsuit filed by Mr. Sanders’ family.
An attorney for Mr. Sanders’ family, the Comanche County District Attorney’s office and the Lawton Police Department did not immediately respond to emails and calls seeking comment on Wednesday.
Both arbitrators wrote in their submissions, each nearly 50 pages long, that Mr. Hinkle, who is black, and Mr. Ronan, who is white, had believed that Mr. Sanders had a gun, which justified their decision to shoot. The city, however, claims officers shot to death a man who posed no imminent danger.
Body camera footage of the confrontation shows officers responding to a 911 call about a man who was entering a home in violation of a protective order.
Mr Sanders got into an argument with a woman when the police were called, his family’s lawyer said, and he was the person who breached the protective order, according to a declaration released in December 2021 by the Lawton Police Department.
The caller had reported that Mr Sanders was waving a gun inside the house, police said. Officers learned Mr Sanders was refusing to let one of the residents go, according to prosecutors, and footage shows officers using a loudspeaker to warn Mr Sanders of their presence.
After a woman leaves the house, Mr Sanders emerges through a back door, according to the video.
Mr. Sanders complied with an officer’s orders to show his hands, according to the district attorney’s office, before rushing back inside. As Mr. Sanders exits the house again, an officer wearing a body camera moves towards him, ordering him to put his hands up and get down.
The only visible item in his hands is a baseball cap, according to the district attorney’s statement. Mr. Sanders appears to be trying to move behind a refrigerator sitting outside him, and just as he raises his hands above his head, one of the officers shoots Mr. Sanders four times.
Mr Sanders then falls to the ground, at which time an officer once again says, “Hands! Hands! Hands! »
The footage then shows Mr. Sanders sitting with his hands over his head, and at that moment he is being hit repeatedly, the video shows. The officers shout for Mr. Sanders to « stay down » and « roll onto his stomach ». Mr. Sanders, squirming, appears to be saying « I’m down » and « I can’t breathe ».
The arbitrators concluded that excessive force was not used to an extent to warrant termination. But police accountability experts continue to scrutinize and raise questions about the practice of arbitration in police misconduct cases nationwide; some argue that the process is more favorable to police unions.
Diego Jesus Peña, the arbitrator in Mr. Hinkle’s case, declined to comment on his findings. He said he has served as an arbitrator in other police misconduct cases in the past. Gary A. Anderson, the arbitrator in Mr. Ronan’s case, was not immediately reachable for comment Wednesday night.
They were selected through a process in which each side, the city and the officers can strike one by one through a random group of umpires from a national organization until there is only one umpire left, according to Mr. James, who described the process as Fair.
But some experts have criticized that selection process because it could incentivize arbitrators to rule more favorably on police, or risk being ignored by officers in future cases.
« The referee does the right thing and upholds discipline, the chances are he’s not going to get another engagement, » said law enforcement accountability and reform expert Michael Gennaco. « On the other hand, for those who undo discipline or cut the child in half, or come up with a compromise resolution, those are the ones who get picked again by the union. »
Police unions typically negotiate such collective bargaining agreements with the city, resulting in the widespread use of umpires, who are unelected and have little or no accountability, Gennaco said.
« I think it’s really a systemic flaw in the process, » he said.
Arbitrators also operate with a broad standard of review, focusing on specific sentences such as whether an officer was fired « without cause or just cause, or some other generalized standard, » said Stephen Rushin, professor of criminal law, evidence and accountability. of the police at Loyola University Chicago.
Dr. Rushin, who has researched police arbitration across the country, said that « it is not at all unusual for arbitrators to reinstate officers who have been fired or reduce discipline » and that studies have consistently shown that check about half the time.
Mr. James said he has not seen such an advantage for police officers in his experience with arbitration.
His clients, he said, had won « not because of the bias against the union » but because of « all the facts that have been presented in this case. »