Sunday, February 18, 2018
Public safety

St. Petersburg police officer fired for shooting at car gets job back

ST. PETERSBURG — The city must reinstate a police officer who was fired last summer for shooting at a car carrying two teenagers, an arbitrator ruled this week.

George Graves, whom former police Chief Chuck Harmon fired in July, is expected to be back at work Monday.

The 30-year-old will get some additional training before returning to patrolling the streets.

He also will get more than $32,000 in back pay.

"We're very pleased with the findings," Detective Mark Marland, president of the police union, said Friday. "We can't wait to get him back to work."

Graves joined the force in 2008. Five years later, he had made it to the street crimes unit.

On April 15, he and other officers were tracking a stolen Nissan Altima that backed into an alley behind the 1800 block of 26th Street S.

Graves took up a position nearby; two other officers approached the car in the alley.

Police said the occupants — a 19-year-old driver and 15-year-old passenger — refused to surrender.

Instead, officials said, the driver lurched the car forward as an officer crossed in front of it, struck a pole, backed up and fled. Both officers fired multiple times at the sedan, which kept going.

Graves told supervisors the car then turned toward him as it left the alley, so he fired two shots from about 90 feet away. One of Graves' bullets wounded the driver. The other struck a home.

Harmon, in remarks after the shooting and during an arbitration hearing in December, said he doubted Graves' assertion that he was in danger and needed to use deadly force.

The incident, one in a string of officer-involved shootings last year, fueled already-existing tensions with community leaders concerned about the agency's relationship with residents.

The Police Department has had a long-standing section in its use of force policy that says officers should not fire at a moving car unless someone inside is armed and all other "reasonable means" to avoid the danger have failed.

But the arbitrator noted other officers have shot at cars — including the two others with Graves that day — and received suspensions only.

"These cases illustrate subjective attitudes that are inconsistent with satisfying a just cause standard," arbitrator Richard C. Hotvedt wrote in a nine-page report. "It would be reasonable to conclude that the department used a selective judgement to appease its critics."

In one of his last acts as chief, Harmon toughened standards for officers using deadly force and stiffened penalties for policy violators. The union decried the move, and the existing policy against shooting at cars, as too broad.

Interim police Chief Dave DeKay said he was not involved in this arbitration or investigations.

"I don't know what Harmon's thought process was," DeKay said. "Obviously the arbitrator didn't agree."

It's not the first time. Last year, another officer fired by Harmon got his job back through arbitration.

Officer Mehmedin Karic lost his job after he struck and killed a man crossing a street in a wheelchair two years ago.

Marland said when Karic returned to the department, Harmon met with him and essentially told him "no hard feelings."

DeKay said he will do the same with Graves, whose annual salary will be $52,832 — slightly more than he when he left because of automatic pay increases.

"It's not personal. It's business," Marland said. "Everybody's excited to see them back. … They're good cops."

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