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Indiana Town Loses Appeal in Firing of Black Police Officer in Light of White Officer's Racist Comments, Including Video Game Remarks
THE BIG PICTURE
While searching for new video game cases this week, I came across a case that mentions “video game” only once and really has nothing to do with video games. Nevertheless, it seems timely to write about it, in light of our national discourse. This case arose in the town of West Terre Haute, a town with only a couple thousand people in Vigo County Indiana, on the western side of the Wabash River. The Town appealed a trial court’s grant of a petition for judicial review filed by an African American man named Jonathan Stevens. The trial court reversed the Town’s decision to fire Stevens from his employment as a police officer because the Town’s “Safety Board,” which made the decision, included a man who had previously made racial slurs against Stevens — the Town’s only black police officer. The appellate court affirmed.
The Town’s appeal involved a single issue: Whether the trial court properly granted Stevens’ petition for judicial review thereby reversing the Town’s decision terminating from his employment as a police officer.
In 2013, the Town hired Stevens as a police officer.
On October 31, 2017, Stevens was arrested and charged with felony domestic battery and a misdemeanor for disorderly conduct. Prior to these charges, Stevens had never been reprimanded or disciplined for any violations and had been promoted to a supervisory role in the police department.
On January 8, 2018, the police department placed Stevens on administrative leave, pending the final resolution of the criminal charges.
Sometime in 2018, prior to deciding how to proceed in his criminal case, Stevens talked to the police chief, who told him Stevens would be able to keep his job if he was only convicted for the disorderly conduct.
After about a week, the chief told Stevens that he had spoken to the Town Safety Board — a three-person legislative body for the Town that deals with police discipline — and that two members of the Safety Board had advised the chief that they would also support Stevens if he was able to avoid the felony domestic battery conviction. To be extra safe, Stevens’ wife Heather called one of the Safety Board members — Chuck Stranahan — who called her back and, with both Stevens and Heather on speaker phone, told them that Stevens could keep his job as long as Stevens was only convicted for the disorderly conduct and not felony domestic battery.
After receiving this reassurance from both the police chief and Mr. Stranahan, Stevens pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge and the prosecutor agreed to drop the domestic battery felony charge. That same day, the police chief met with the Town’s Safety Board and recommended that, in light of Stevens’ plea, he be reinstated as a full-time officer with one week of unpaid leave.
However, the Town Safety Board reneged.
On November 26, 2018, with Stevens and Heather in attendance at the Safety Board meeting, the Safety Board voted to terminate Stevens based on his disorderly conduct conviction. After the vote, Heather stood up and accused Stranahan of lying to her about voting to retain Stevens. Stranahan nodded his head and admitted to the accusation, saying, “Yes. Yes, I did.” The same day, Stevens was fired.
Stevens timely filed a hearing request to dispute his termination and, on December 19, 2018, a hearing was held. At the hearing, both the current police chief and former chief testified that they had discretion to recommend a candidate to be hired even if they had a misdemeanor conviction. The current chief further testified that he thought Stevens was a very competent police officer who had never been disciplined for any prior violations.
EVIDENCE OF RACIST COMMENTS, INCLUDING WHILE PLAYING A VIDEO GAME
At the hearing, Stevens presented evidence that Stranahan was racially biased against him, including evidence that in February 2018, while serving as a member of the Safety Board, Stranahan made a racial comment in the presence of the then-present police chief about how Stranahan killed a “whole village of n******s” while playing a video game. When the police chief admonished Stranahan for the disparaging racial remark, Stranahan looked at him and stated that he was running for Town Council/Safety Board in the next election and he knew how he was going to win. Stranahan explained that he would “pitch” his campaign by telling everyone in town that he would “fire the fucking n*****” that worked for the chief. At the time, Stevens was the only African American officer on active duty.
Stevens presented evidence that Stranahan was disciplined on March 11, 2013 and required to offer an apology letter to Stevens, including assurances that his conduct/behavior would not occur again. Following the incident, Stranahan was elected to the Town Council.
Based on this evidence, Stevens argued that having Stranaham vote on Stevens’ employment status would deny Stevens due process of law because of Stranahan’s racial bias against him.
THE SAFETY BOARD VOTES AGAINST STEVENS
On January 9, 2019, the Town’s attorney denied Stevens’ motion to disqualify Stranahan, finding that Stranahan’s racial slur and refusal to apologize to Stevens or the Town “bore no relation to the events associated with Stevens’ disciplinary action.” The Safety Board then voted 2-1 (including a vote from Stranahan) to terminate Stevens.
Stevens sought judicial review of the Town’s decision and the trial court reversed the Safety Board’s decision, leading the Town to appeal.
APPELLATE COURT AFFIRMS
The appellate court affirmed the trial court’s finding, observing that:
“Under an objective standard, the probability of actual bias is too high to allow the decision of the Safety Board to stand….Due process in administrative hearings requires that all hearings be conducted before an impartial body….When a biased board member participates in a decision, the decision will be vacated.”
It’s no guarantee that another racist won’t simply take Stranahan’s place in making the decision next time around — and it’s both telling and depressing that the Town even appealed the trial court’s order in the first place. Still, at least in this case, we can see the judicial system working as intended as we attempt, albeit at a faltering, lugubrious pace, to move forward as a country in our treatment of our fellow citizens.