Arbitrator finds for fired officer
RIVERSIDE: Gregory Preece, the supervising sergeant in the Miller shooting, should be reinstated, he says.
BY LISA O'NEILL HILL and PHIL PITCHFORD
Former Riverside police Sgt. Gregory Preece was wrongly fired because of the public outcry resulting from the Tyisha Miller shooting and should be reinstated as an officer with back pay, an arbitrator has found.
Former Chief Jerry Carroll's decision to fire Preece, who was in charge of the four officers who shot Miller that early morning, was excessive and arbitrary, Long Beach arbitrator John D. Perone wrote in a 42-page decision.
Perone found that Preece had failed to properly supervise the officers who shot Miller and had made a racial remark and a profane comment after the shooting, but he should have remained a police officer.
"As cogently stated by counsel for the Grievant (Preece), it was not Grievant's actions which really caused his termination, it was the public outcry," Perone wrote.
Preece is entitled to reinstatement to the rank of police officer with back pay at that level retroactive to Sept. 1, 1999, the day he was fired, less a 30-day suspension without pay for his remarks, Perone wrote.
Preece, his attorney, Chuck Goldwasser of Los Angeles, and Carroll could not be reached for comment Monday. City Council members also could not be reached for comment.
"Too many guns"
Perone found that a more experienced and capable supervisor may have better anticipated a serious event was about to occur. Preece was just completing his second year as a sergeant.
According to Perone, Preece should have seen that there were "too many officers, too many guns out, too close in proximity." He also should have recognized the potential danger when guns were fired in a service station with highly flammable materials around.
"Notwithstanding the charges toward his deserving discipline being well-proven, they do not have as their center allegation of his incompetence as a non-supervising police officer," Perone wrote.
The four officers Preece supervised that morning also are trying to get their jobs back through arbitration hearings or lawsuits. It was not clear Monday how soon those cases will be decided.
The council will meet in closed session July 10 to review the city's options, including appealing the decision, city spokeswoman Laurie Payne said.
A Riverside lawyer who represented Miller's family said the city should appeal to send the message that racial comments will be dealt with severely.
"Either we have zero tolerance for racism in the Police Department, or we don't," Andy Roth said.
Perone heard 14 days of evidence between May and October 2000, saw two re-enactments of the shooting and studied testimony from witnesses and 58 exhibits. The arbitration hearings divided the department, with some officers and administrators testifying for the city and others for Preece.
Perone found that Preece had failed as a supervisor, was wrong to use profane language to describe Miller and had made a racially insensitive remark at the shooting scene. After the black woman's death, as relatives and friends gathered nearby, Preece said to a colleague: "This doesn't look good. This is going to ruin their Kwanzaa."
The city was correct to impose some discipline against Preece for his conduct, according to Perone. But termination was "unreasonable."
The decision is the latest chapter in a saga that began when a friend of Miller's called police after finding Miller, a 19-year-old black Rubidoux woman, unresponsive and with a gun on her lap inside a locked, idling car at a gas station.
Four officers went to the gas station to help her because relatives thought she needed medical aid. Officers Paul Bugar, Wayne Stewart, Daniel Hotard and Michael Alagna shot and killed Miller. They said they fired after she reached for the gun on her lap after they had broken a window in her car.
Miller's death sparked about 44 protests, including ones attended by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and garnered national attention.
Preece returning to work as an officer "would be a sad day in Riverside" and a setback for the Police Department, said the Rev. Bernell Butler, Miller's cousin, who served as a spokesman for her family.
"People would be outraged," Butler said. "It would fuel the fire for more pickets and protests and possible civil unrest."
Carroll fired the four officers in July 1999. About two months later, Preece, who had arrived at the scene just before the shooting erupted, was fired for failing to adequately supervise the officers, among other things.
Preece had been eating at McDonald's with Alagna and Stewart just before 2 a.m. on Dec. 28, 1998, when a 911 hang-up call was reported from the gas station where Miller had parked her disabled vehicle. The officers said they would join others dispatched to the call, and Preece made his way there after getting more information about the call.
Preece was on scene for less than a minute when shooting erupted. He once told investigators that it would have been "defeatist" to intervene.
His attorney argued in the arbitration hearings that Preece was not required to respond to gun calls and that department policy only mandated supervisors respond to domestic-violence calls and car chases. Goldwasser argued that Preece could not be held accountable for not understanding the danger of the situation until he had gotten there and assessed it.
Once Preece arrived, he did not have enough time to assess the situation before gunfire erupted, Goldwasser said. Goldwasser described Preece as an excellent officer, who was well-liked by his peers and his subordinates.
The city's attorney, Patricia Kinaga, described Preece as a "spectator" during the incident. She said he pushed a button on his mobile data terminal, indicating he was at the gas station when he was in fact about a mile away, changed his story three times about where he was when the shooting started and failed to recognize two instances where officers had placed themselves in unreasonable danger.
Kinaga also argued that Preece had had time to intervene after he arrived at the gas station and instructed the officers to take photographs and conduct other crime-scene preservation tasks in connection with a shooting in which they had just participated.
Perone found that the department supported some of violations against Preece's conduct as a supervisor but went too far in firing him.
Preece "should be demoted for his actions once he was on the scene and through the time of the shooting. (Preece) also clearly acted in a manner which was a poor example to probationary and short-term officers, and indeed anyone who heard his comments after the shooting," Perone wrote.
In firing Preece, Carroll had found that Preece's actions were so egregious that Preece could not be retrained, according to Perone's decision. The arbitrator disagreed and said he failed to see where Preece violated significant basic patrol procedures as an officer.
"There is even reason to suspect that had (Preece) been a responding police officer, he would have been successful (as he had in a similar incident in the past) in awakening the semiconscious person with a gun in a locked vehicle," Perone wrote.
MS: to be continued. Am working on this one myself.