Oklahoma Supreme Court to Hear Case of Terminated Owasso Police Officer Who Beat Handcuffed Suspect

Source: Rhett Morgan /Tulsa World

OWASSO — The Oklahoma Supreme Court has agreed to review the case of a terminated Owasso police officer who was ordered reinstated by the state appellate court.

Former police Lt. Mike Denton was fired in 2011 because he violated the department’s use-of-force policy. The state Supreme Court recently granted a request by the city to examine the appellate court’s ruling.

“I was surprised but pleased,” City Attorney Julie Lombardi said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “Knowing their backlog … it probably will at least take a year.”

In a decision filed in April, the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals reversed a January 2013 decision by Tulsa County Associate District Judge Dana Kuehn, who found that an arbitrator-ordered reinstatement of Denton would pose “a special risk of injury, physical and psychological, to citizens and, if he is allowed reinstatement, the department will be faced with explaining why Owasso allows abusive conduct by its officers, which is against the law.”

Presiding Judge Larry Joplin wrote the majority opinion for the appellate court.

“We hold the cited criminal statutes establish no public policy impediment to enforcement of the arbitrator’s decision setting aside Denton’s termination and reinstating him to the employment,” Joplin wrote. “The trial court erred in vacating the arbitrator’s decision as contrary to public policy.”

The public policy (law) exception to at-will employees deals with balancing employers’ rights and the public interest.

In explaining his determination, Joplin wrote that the “trial court’s conclusion that the arbitrator’s construction of the CBA (collective bargaining agreement) violated the public policy expressed by (statute) is particularly egregious. The parties clearly bargained for an arbitrator’s interpretation of the CBA, and so long as the arbitrator remained true to the essence of the agreement, his decision should not be disturbed.”

James Patrick Hunt, Denton’s attorney, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Wednesday. The lawyer said in April that his client would like to return to the police department.

Denton, then a 17-year department veteran, was fired in November 2011 because his actions during an arrest violated the department’s use-of-force policy, according to the city.

The city released a video, in which Denton can be seen stepping on the head, stretching the handcuffed arms and appearing to elbow the face of a Collinsville man who was arrested on a public intoxication complaint on June 30, 2011.

Arbitrator Edward Valverde ruled in June 2012 that Denton should be reinstated, saying that although the officer used unreasonable and unnecessary force, his actions “did not rise to the level of excessive force within the meaning of existing case law.”

Valverde reduced the discipline from firing to a written reprimand and ordered the city to reinstate Denton with back pay and benefits.

Instead of allowing Denton to rejoin the force, the city filed a lawsuit on July 16, 2012.

On Jan. 9, 2013, Kuehn ruled for the city, determining that Denton couldn’t be reinstated. That decision was appealed to the Oklahoma Court of Civil Appeals.