A Boston police officer who was fired in 2012 after allegedly choking a suspect and lying about the encounter is entitled to reinstatement, in part because choke holds are not expressly forbidden in department use of force regulations, the state’s highest court ruled Wednesday.
The Supreme Judicial Court’s finding in the case of Officer David C. Williams upheld a lower court ruling and an arbitrator’s finding that he was wrongly terminated.
However, Justice Geraldine S. Hines wrote in Wednesday’s opinion that “because choke holds are unpredictably lethal . . . both officers and the public deserve a bright-line rule.” She said the SJC is “troubled by the prospect that any use of force not explicitly prohibited by a rule of conduct is essentially unreviewable.”
The ruling marks the second time that Williams will be allowed to rejoin the department after being fired; Williams was also fired in 1998 after being accused of using excessive force.
Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans said in a statement that he respected Wednesday’s ruling.
“I respect the decision of the Court but am deeply concerned about the impact this decision has on the Police Commissioner’s ability to terminate employees who have committed significant misconduct,” Evans said. “The decision to terminate an employee is never made lightly or arbitrarily and is only done after careful examination of all the facts and circumstances involved.”
Patrick Rose, president of the Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association, Williams’s union, said in a statement that the SJC ruling was “a victory for David Willams and his family” and the arbitration process.
The union added that it “is grateful to the SJC for taking the BPD to task for its negligent mishandling of the matter and for the lengthy delays in the investigation. It is a travesty that Officer Williams is only now receiving justice for actions he took more than eight years ago.”
The case stems from an incident on March 15, 2009, when Williams and Officer Diep Nguyen were arresting Michael O’Brien, then a Middlesex County corrections officer, in the North End.
O’Brien and Nguyen scuffled as the officer tried to handcuff him, and Williams tackled O’Brien to the ground, Hines wrote.
Williams then “pressed his upper left arm and shoulder against the right side of O’Brien’s neck,” the ruling said. “He characterized this maneuver as a ‘semi-bearhug hold.’ Nguyen testified that Williams had his arm ‘around [O’Brien’s] neck’ in a ‘chokehold.’ O’Brien testified that he could not breathe and began to lose consciousness.”
In addition, O’Brien later complained of chest pains and was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where a doctor noted “petechiae, which are sometimes associated with choking,” on his face, Hines wrote.
The city later paid O’Brien a $1.4 million civil settlement.
Williams was fired in 2012, but arbitrator Michael C. Ryan reinstated Williams the following year. He found that O’Brien, who was intoxicated during the incident, was not truthful and that Williams “used only the amount of force reasonably necessary to overcome O’Brien’s resistance to arrest,” Hines wrote.
Ryan, Hines wrote, found Nguyen to be a credible witness but also found that Williams was fired “not for use of a choke hold, which is nowhere prohibited by department rules, but for excessive force in choking O’Brien.”
The arbitrator concluded that Williams’s use of force “was reasonable and had not actually restricted O’Brien’s breathing” and that Williams was truthful with investigators, Hines wrote.
A Superior Court judge later upheld Ryan’s ruling, prompting the city to appeal to the SJC.
Hines’s opinion, in ruling for Williams, also noted that he used poor judgment.
“Williams gave no verbal commands, and used neither of the methods of nonlethal force in which he was trained before applying a choke hold, despite his training to avoid a suspect’s neck area,” the ruling said. “It is unreasonable to justify a choke hold — as the arbitrator did — on the grounds that a suspect could always ‘grab’ an officer’s service weapon, because this is true of any civilian interaction with police and would obviate any continuum of force.”
Hines added that a department rule expressly barring choke holds might have led to a different outcome in the case.
“Had the city prohibited choke holds as excessive force, an arbitrator who found a choke hold reasonable would have exceeded his authority,” she wrote.
O’Brien’s attorney, Howard Friedman, said, “David Williams shouldn’t be a police officer.”
He said the city should give Williams his back pay and reach a settlement in which the officer would agree to leave the force.
But Friedman blamed the arbitrator’s decision and ultimately the court’s decision in part on what he said was the department’s failure to quickly and thoroughly investigate the initial complaints filed against Williams.
“They didn’t jump on it right away or treat it as a serious incident,” Friedman said. “You create opportunities for bad officers to continue on the department.”
“It’s a sad situation that he’s back on the force a second time,” he said.
In 1998, the department terminated Williams for his role in the 1995 near-fatal beating of Michael Cox, a plainclothes officer who was mistaken for a homicide suspect. In 2005, an arbitrator ruled Williams was fired without just cause and ordered that he receive $500,000 in back pay and be reinstated.
Cox sued the city over the incident and received an $817,000 settlement. He also sued Williams and reached an out-of-court settlement.