Metro

Yvonne Abraham

A firing that should have stuck

David Williams.

John Tlumacki/Globe STaff

David Williams.

Something is terribly broken in our city and state when a public menace like David Williams can’t be fired.

Lord knows, the BPD has tried to get rid of him — not once, but twice.

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The first time was back in 1998, after he was fired for his role in the brutal beating of undercover police officer Michael Cox, a black man mistaken for a shooting suspect by his fellow officers, who then tried to cover up their crime. Cox won a $1.3 million settlement in that case. No police officer was charged for the beating, though three, including Williams, were fired because of it.

But an arbitrator decided in 2005 that Williams had been unfairly terminated — that though he had lied in his account of that night, there was not enough evidence of wrongdoing — and he got his job back, along with $550,000 in back pay. He was back on the street, armed with his weapon and full police powers. What could go wrong?

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In 2009, Williams was accused of brutality again — this time after he put off-duty correction officer Michael O’Brien in a choke hold on a North End street after a traffic altercation. Even though the department knew Williams’s history, it barely investigated when O’Brien complained. Not until O’Brien filed a federal lawsuit in 2010 did the department properly examine the incident.

The BPD finally terminated Williams — again — in 2012. The city settled the federal suit, paying O’Brien $1.4 million.

But guess what? Williams appealed his dismissal, and an arbitrator reinstated him again, finding that his use of force had been reasonable.

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Arbitrators often find for police officers: Last year, WCVB-TV reported that they had reversed 72 percent of firings and suspensions that had come before them since 2007.

The city appealed, first to the Superior Court, which upheld the reinstatement, then to the Supreme Judicial Court. On Wednesday, the state’s highest court also ruled Williams should be reinstated. Reading the decision, written by Judge Geraldine Hines, it’s clear the court was not thrilled about it. Williams’s actions in the circumstances could “without doubt” be considered excessive force — especially given “the unpredictably lethal nature of chokeholds,” the decision says.

But the court’s hands are tied, Hines wrote, because the police department has not prohibited choke holds specifically. That makes the question of excessive force a matter of subjective interpretation, and the court felt it had to defer to the arbitrator on that.

Not that the justices were insensitive to the absurdity of it all. “We are troubled by the prospect that any use of force not explicitly prohibited by a rule of conduct is essentially unreviewable,” the judge wrote.

It’s long past time we fixed this. For starters, the BPD must do a better job of jumping on public complaints than it did here, especially those against problem officers.

It’s also time to take the question of excessive force out of the realm of opinion by coming up with what the judge called a “bright-line rule,” prohibiting choke holds.

Lastly, the city needs to do a better job of hiring than it did with Williams, who, according to the federal lawsuit, was suspended from his previous job as an MBTA police officer for giving a false report on his whereabouts. Legions of good men and women are clamoring to join the BPD. The department can afford to be very picky.

Now Williams gets back his job, complete with back pay his attorney says could top $1 million. The best case scenario: The BPD finds a way — and it will likely be an expensive one — to persuade him to leave the department.

This one police officer has cost the city so much — even more than the millions in back pay, and taxpayer-funded settlements.

Officers like Williams corrode the public trust police officers need to do their jobs. And that makes us all less safe.

Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.
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