Supreme Judicial Court hears fight over whether to reinstate Pittsfield officer fired for lying
Dale Eason disqualified himself from being a police officer when he falsified information on a report, an attorney representing the Pittsfield Police Department argued before the state's highest court.
But his attorney contended other officers have not been held to the same standard, and that an arbiter's ruling that he be reinstated should stand.
The Supreme Judicial Court heard arguments Monday over the city's effort to block the arbiter's ruling, which called for Eason to be reinstated following a three-day suspension for falsifying a police report.
That report stems from a February 2016 shoplifting arrest of a woman at the Big Y supermarket in Pittsfield.
Eason took the suspect into custody and escorted her into his cruiser, where she apparently became disruptive, thrashed around and hurled insults and slurs at Eason.
Store staff wanted a photo of the suspect to enforce a trespass order, so Eason removed the woman from the back of his cruiser and held her down in the parking lot while the photo was taken.
The incident was recorded on the store's exterior surveillance system.
In his report, Eason wrote he removed the woman from the cruiser "for her safety," and wasn't explicit that she was removed for the purposes of the photo.
The charges against the woman were eventually dropped and the matter was the subject of an internal affairs investigation. In that process, Eason admitted that acting "for her safety" was inaccurate.
He was fired in September 2016 for conduct unbecoming a police officer, being untruthful and falsifying a report after an internal investigation.
But the city's police union filed a grievance on Eason's behalf, bringing the matter before arbitrator Michael Stutz, who ruled Eason should be reinstated.
The case went to Berkshire Superior Court in August 2017 before Judge Daniel Ford, who upheld the ruling by Stutz.
During Monday's 45-minute hearing before the SJC, Attorney Richard Dohoney, represented the city the at the 45-minute hearing. Attorney Timothy Burke argued on behalf of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers Local 447, which represents Pittsfield Police Officers.
Dohoney said the SJC had previously set out a clear public policy that police officers who are untrue in the course of their official duties "must be terminated."
Chief Justice Ralph Gants said police under cross-examination at trial will sometimes be revealed to have gotten dates, times or places wrong in their official reporting, and asked if those would be dischargeable offenses.
Dohoney said those examples don't necessarily contain an intent to deceive or an intentional misrepresentation.
"It's when you have the intent to deceive, that is a disqualifying act," Dohoney said. "(Eason) affirmatively wrote a lie into a police report for the purposes of covering up his own misconduct.
"When you decide to put lies in a police report, you can no longer be a police officer," Dohoney said.
The SJC noted there were claims in the court filings that Eason was being singled out and given disparate disciplinary treatment than other officers.
Dohoney said there is no other example of an arbitrator's or civil service decision in which a Pittsfield officer was found to be dishonest and allowed to keep their job. But Burke contested with that assertion.
He brought up an older case involving a Pittsfield officer and a member of the Berkshire Drug Task Force who was found to have been purchasing steroids and received a punishment of a five-day suspension.
"That's not deceptive?" Burke asked "That's not inappropriate or worse?"
"It's those who are favored versus those who are not, and it was clear that my client was not one of the favored in that department," Burke said.
"That's why we have arbitrations; that's why we have someone who sits there and listens to the parties. ... You assess credibility, you take all the circumstances that are here, and there was an element of disparate treatment here," Burke said. "You have to accept what the arbitrator said, like it or not, or whether you agree with it or you think it's erroneous or you think it's ill-founded."
Burke said while he wasn't condoning police untruthfulness, he argued that making unilateral decisions to terminate based on false statements would take away discretion from judges and arbitrators to look at each situation on its own and consider any mitigating factors.
"If you take away the ability to discern ... then you've taken the elements of true justice out of the process," he said.
Burke also noted that, unlike other cases, Eason did not keep perpetuating the falsehood by repeating it to investigators or lying about it under oath.
"There's no question he knew what he did was wrong; the difference here is when he's given the opportunity he tells the truth," Burke said.
"If you prevail, the concern will be, now a police officer can lie and the arbitrator can give him three days on the beach," Gants said to Burke. "It's a serious concern about diminishing the importance of police truthfulness."
"I share that concern," Burke said.
The SJC has taken the matter under advisement. It is unclear when it will render its decision.
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.
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