ST. PETERSBURG — A little more than a year ago, a young cop sped down a dark road on his way back to his post after an emergency call.
Officer Mehmedin Karic never saw the wheelchair in the middle of the street — or the man using it. His cruiser was traveling 20 miles above the speed limit at the time of the collision — fatal for the man in the wheelchair, a quadriplegic who neighbors said was friendly and independent.
Last August, police Chief Chuck Harmon fired Karic for violating traffic laws and driving carelessly.
Now, an arbitrator has ruled the 27-year-old should have his job back — and get at least $35,000 in back pay.
Karic reported to duty Monday.
"I think the arbitrator made the right choice," said Karic's attorney, Joseph Ciarciaglino. "I've been representing the police union for 30 years and . . . I just can't remember one of these ever before."
Arbitrator Mark Scarr agreed with the union's argument that Karic was fired without cause and that the punishment was "disparate, excessive and not progressive." Karic was formally reinstated April 23.
Karic was speeding in his police cruiser about 4:20 a.m. Feb. 19, 2012, when he hit and killed Harold Charles Fleming Jr., 45, who was crossing 38th Avenue N at 66th Street in a wheelchair. Karic's cruiser was moving at 61 mph when the accident happened, police said. The speed limit there is 40 mph.
Karic appealed his case through arbitration, which is binding in Florida.
Now, the city is on the hook for the equivalent of 38 weeks of back pay and lost seniority and benefits.
At the time of his firing, Karic's annualized base salary was about $48,000, officials said. He may be eligible for a little more now.
"He should be back on the street very shortly," Assistant Police Chief Luke Williams said Tuesday. "We have to make him whole to the day where he was when he was let go."
Williams is in charge of uniform services bureau, which includes patrol officers. He sat on the administrative board that reviewed Karic's case last year, although Harmon has final say on discipline.
Harmon was out of the office Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.
"Due process was held," Williams said. "We have specific instructions on what we have to do, and we're doing that. We're adhering to what the arbiter said."
Fleming's family, who learned of the decision Tuesday, said they were disheartened.
"It's fantastic that he gets to move on with his life, and pursue his goals and aspirations," Fleming's sister, Rhonda Fleming Collier, said sarcastically. "We still have a big missing hole in our family."
Karic is working in the telephone reporting unit while he completes some tests, but will be able to return to patrol in District 2, where he had worked before, Williams said.
Ciarciaglino said city officials "made the choice they thought was right at the time." But, he said, the facts of the case did not add up to a situation that warranted a public employee's termination.
He said Karic has no worries about going back to work for an organization that fired him.
"There's no animosity on his part," Ciarciaglino said. "He was good at his job and he liked his job."
Karic was hired at the department in October 2010. A native of Bosnia-Herzegovina, he was hired for his language skills and worked as an interpreter. He had no previous discipline in his record before the crash.
Supervisors in past reviews called him positive and respectful.
Twenty minutes before the accident, Karic was driving more than 80 to 90 mph while en route to a call in another district, police said. He also wasn't wearing a seat belt.
He pleaded guilty to a careless driving citation last June and was fined $1,000, ordered to serve community service and had his driver's license suspended for six months.
The union argued that in the past, other officers had committed more severe violations than Karic's and kept their jobs.
Scarr agreed that discipline at the department is inconsistent and said the police chief's action was an "abuse of authority." He said that the death — which he stressed was accidental — was the "overpowering" reason for the termination.
"Accidents do happen," he wrote.
Fleming Collier said she visits her brother's grave every weekend. She called the situation tragic.
She wondered Tuesday how her mother would take the news.
"We've never, ever, ever received an apology from Officer Karic," Fleming Collier said. "It's taken us well over a year to move forward."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643.