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Thursday, Jul 31, 2014

St. Pete officer fired after shooting allowed to return

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Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2014 at 10:17 PM

ST. PETERSBURG — An arbitrator has ruled that a fired police officer who shot at a stolen car should be rehired and said the department may have used selective judgment to “appease its critics” in dismissing him.

George Graves, 30, was fired on July 10 — and two other officers each were suspended for two weeks — following an April 15 shooting at a stolen car in the city’s south side that left two teenagers wounded.

Officers Brandon Bill and Richard Bishop accepted their punishment, while Graves appealed his termination.

In a nine-page ruling made available Friday, Richard Hotvedt, an arbitrator from Naples, noted police Chief Chuck Harmon and Mayor Bill Foster had met with representatives from the NAACP, the Urban League and the ACLU, among others, who expressed concern about the shooting at 1831 26th St. S. At the time, Foster was running for re-election in a race he later lost.

“It would be reasonable to conclude that the department used a selective judgment to appease its critics,” Hotvedt wrote of the decision to fire Graves.

But, the arbitrator said, he was not relying on that inference in ruling that Graves should not have been dismissed. Rather, he said, Graves’ punishment was unjustified because it was not in sync with what the police department typically has done with officers accused of similar weapons violations.

In the incident, Bill and Bishop drove up to a stolen Nissan Altima that was backed up to the rear of a house, police documents state, while Graves set up about a block away. When officers exited their car, a 19-year-old man at the wheel of the Altima drove at Bishop, and he fired.

The Altima got stuck on a tree, and Bill ran to it. The driver then backed up toward Bill, who fired, documents state. The car then drove toward Graves and past him when he, too, fired.

The three officers discharged a total of 20 rounds. The driver was wounded in the shoulder and forearm, while a 15-year-old female passenger was wounded in the arm.

Graves had heard gunfire before the car got to him and tried to summon his colleagues on the radio, but got no reply, Hotvedt wrote. He exited his car and drew a .40-caliber handgun from a back-belt, then decided to use a larger .45-caliber handgun in his holster. Police department policy requires that officers use only one gun at a time.

Graves heard a second round of gunfire and ran, his gun drawn, believing he was going into an ambush, Hotvedt wrote. He heard Bill on the radio saying, “He tried to run us over. He tried to kill us. We shot. We shot,” Hotvedt wrote.

Graves saw the car emerge from an alley and thought it attempted to turn toward him. He fired two rounds, one striking a nearby house and the other striking the car’s driver side door.

The department had tightened its policies regarding shooting at cars following two riots in 1996, set in motion after an officer fatally shot a black teenager who repeatedly bumped his car into the officer.

“When approaching a vehicle, officers shall use appropriate safety measures and shall not place themselves in harm’s way by standing in front of a vehicle, standing directly behind, or reaching inside an operating vehicle,” the policy states.

Bishop and Bill violated that policy, Harmon ruled. When Graves fired his weapon, neither he nor anyone else was in danger, Harmon has said. He thought Graves should have taken cover instead of advancing, the arbitrator wrote.

At a shooting review board, Harmon also said, “I looked at its influence in the community as it relates to how ... the police are perceived,” the arbitrator wrote.

Hotvedt disagreed with Harmon’s interpretation of what Graves was doing.

“He did fire at a fleeing car, twice,” the arbitrator wrote. “I conclude that he believed subjectively that he was endangered by what he perceived as a swerve toward him when the car emerged.”

In addition, Hotvedt noted that in other cases when officers fired at cars, sometimes as the car was fleeing, they were suspended, not fired.

“I conclude that both before and after the Graves case, the Department had established no consistent precedent for discharging officers who fire without authorization, endangering themselves and others,” he wrote. “It is clear that Graves firing twice at a fleeing car was no more serious an act of misconduct than was worthy of mere warnings and short suspensions in the other cases presented.”

In the Feb. 28 decision, Hotvedt said Graves could return to work immediately, with back pay and benefits retroactive to Aug. 1. “In effect, he is getting a 120 hour suspension and an admonition similar to those given in the other, cited gun cases,” he wrote.

Graves, who had been with the agency since 2008, has not returned to work yet, a police spokesman said.

sthompson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-6504.

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