Arbitrator overturns sergeant's 'unwarranted' suspension after crash cover-up acquittal

Arbitrator overturns sergeant's 'unwarranted' suspension after crash cover-up acquittal

CINCINNATI, OH (FOX19) - An arbitrator has overturned a veteran Cincinnati police sergeant's 'unwarranted' lengthy suspension related to a 2015 off-duty crash of another police supervisor, one in which he and another officer were accused by the former police chief of covering up, criminally charged and then acquitted.

Sgt. Richard Sulfsted and Officer Jason Cotterman were acquitted of misdemeanor charges of dereliction of duty and obstruction of justice in a 2016 bench trial in which they didn't even have to present a defense.

Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Josh Berkowitz concluded the case was based on opinion and conjecture. He also noted the prosecution's own witnesses, including the traffic section commander, testified the allegations shouldn't have resulted in criminal charges.

The sergeant involved in the March 22, 2015 crash, Sgt. Andrew Mitchell, pleaded guilty in December 2015 to two traffic violations, failure to maintain reasonable control of a motor vehicle and not wearing a seat belt.

Mitchell, who now is a District 3 lieutenant, was ordered to pay a $315 fine and returned to active duty.

A misdemeanor count of reckless operation of a motor vehicle was dropped.

Sulfsted is a 27-year employee "with an excellent, if not outstanding, record of service prior to the event that resulted in the first discipline meted out to him in his entire career," wrote the arbitrator, Louis V. Imundo Jr., in his Nov. 24 decision obtained by FOX19 NOW.

While the arbitrator concluded Sulfsted did not handle the situation correctly and used bad judgment by failing to go to the crash scene, Imundo found that Sulfsted still "is to be compensated for the 56 hours of pay he lost as a result of being improperly suspended."

Further, the arbitrator essentially agreed with the judge's opinion and criticized Blackwell for insisting on criminal charges despite information to the contrary.

"In the Arbitrator's opinion, for reasons known only to him, Chief Blackwell ignored expert opinion and very compelling, if not overwhelming, information that loudly and clearly said no criminal charges were warranted. In the Arbitrator's opinion, (Sulfsted) exercised poor judgement in not going to the crash scene. Chief Blackwell exercised extremely poor judgment in having criminal charges filed. The result of this very bad decision was that Sgt. Sulfsted suffered considerable emotional and financial harm."

The arbitrator also found that the city wasted money in prosecuting the case.

FOP President Sgt. Dan Hils said the decision showed the arbitrator thought the criminal case "was an overreach and what resulted was an employee that deserved, at most, low level-discipline was treated way outside what was reasonable."

He described Sulfsted's 56-hour suspension as a lengthy one that is considered "very stern," especially since Sulfsted received a written reprimand for procedural violations in handling the situation.

In giving Sulfsted such a lengthy suspension, Hils said "they were trying to penalize him because of the financial loss. They should have charged themselves on that one."

Hils chalked Blackwell's behavior in the case to "incompetence."

When Blackwell was initially fired in September 2015, City Manager Harry Black said it was because Blackwell created "a work environment of hostility and retaliation." Officers, supervisors and command staff members backed that up by turning in signed statements with example after example.

One of those statements, from Assistant Police Chief Teresa Theetge, said Blackwell waded into some internal affair cases and held onto several files of them, delaying their resolution.

In the case involving the off-duty crash, she said Blackwell was scheduled to meet with one of the officers alleged to have mishandled the investigation.

"I became aware of this meeting approximately 30 minutes before it was to occur. I immediately went to the Chief's office and strongly-advise-him-not-to-meet with the officer because IIU had not yet determined if criminal charges were going to be filed and I was concerned that the meeting could be misconstrued as a Garrity interview," Theetge's statement reads.

Garrity Rights protect public employees from being compelled to incriminate themselves during investigatory interviews conducted by their employers.

"Chief Blackwell agreed and cancelled the meeting. Approximately one week before I was transferred to Criminal Investigation Section, Chief Blackwell directed the incoming Professional Standards Section Commander to contact the aforementioned officer and determine why he wanted to meet to discuss the alleged incident.

"I again stressed to the Commander why this meeting should not occur as it could possibly hinder our ability to proceed with criminal charges if the Garrity issue was raised. The commander ultimately contacted the officer via phone and then advised the Chief that my advice should be followed and a meeting should not occur."

In her statement, Theetge said this example was one of three that demonstrated internal "case mismanagement" and "a lack of communication and leadership by Chief Blackwell."

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She also said she began to keep "a running tally of how many reports the Chief had and for how long he had them."

"It became common practice for Chief Blackwell to have between 15 to 25 reports at a time, some of them for more than six months," her statement reads.

All internal investigation reports and findings go to the chief for final approval; until then, they are not closed and if discipline is warranted, it is delayed.

One of those reports she said was delayed was the one on an off-duty officer who had assaulted a known person on Aug. 4, 2014.

In fact, in that case, according to her statement, Blackwell didn't get back to her after three months and then told her when she inquired that he could not find it.  He asked that it be reprinted and resubmitted to him. She said she did in late 2014.

As June 2015, she said the was not been approved and returned by Blackwell. Therefore, 13 months passed since the incident occurred and the officer hadn't been disciplined.

Those were among issues that contributed to an overall picture of the chief and his "inability to manage something as significant as reports which address allegations of officer misconduct," according to her statement.

"This inability has left the Department unable to bring these cases to a resolution in a timely manner and thereby diminishing the confidence that we strive to instill in our community and our officers. Chief Blackwell's lack of communication and leadership as it pertains to internal investigations has hindered the Cincinnati Police Department's efforts to maintain integrity and transparency as it relates to investigating its own officers.

"Chief Blackwell's actions are in direct conflict with the following entry in the Purpose of Discipline of our Manual of Rules and Regulations, "The public's trust is impacted, however slightly; each time a manager adjudicates a complaint investigation or finds that an employee's conduct did not conform to law, policy, procedure, or rule."

Blackwell's termination status was changed from firing to resignation amid a confidential $250,000 settlement city officials entered into with him in August 2016.

The settlement occurred after the former chief threatened legal action over his firing. He is not permitted to discuss the settlement publicly or criticize the city.

Cotterman, 40, was medically separated from the police department two months after the charges were dismissed against him. The department's psychologist recommended he be medically retired.

Seeking reinstatement, Cotterman filed a federal lawsuit in September against the city, Police Chief Eliot Isaac in his official capacity and "John Doe #1" and "John Doe #2."

The city did not respond to his suit by the deadline earlier this month, so his lawyer filed a request for default judgment.

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