An arbitrator ruled this week that Beachwood police officer Blake Rogers, who was fired by the city after shooting at a fleeing shoplifting suspect in the parking lot of Beachwood mall in March 2019, will get his job back, but only because the city of Beachwood failed in multiple ways to abide by the termination process and failed to document specific ways in which Rogers violated city policies.
"Although the arbitrator’s opinion is that [Rogers] was not justified in using deadly force in this incident, the City did not prove the grievant violated all of the policies listed in the termination letter," the ruling reads, "and also made numerous due process errors: the grievant was given disparate treatment compared to officers involved in [a previous] incident; it assumed differing positions regarding whether the car was moving towards the grievant, depending upon whether it was prosecuting Jones or terminating the grievant; it did not prove the bystanders in the parking lot were in any danger of being struck by the grievant’s shots; the grievant was not provided sufficient information to defend himself against the charge of being dishonest; and it considered discipline which, according to the contract, should have been expunged."
Rogers, who was placed on paid leave ($92,000 salary) for the two years between the incident and his termination in February 2021, will also receive backpay covering the months after he was fired.
The shooting drew little attention until July 2020 when Channel 19 published a story with full dashcam video of the incident
, only made available by Beachwood after months of battles over the public record, which showed Rogers firing at the suspect, who had stolen a $59 hat, at close range and continuing to shoot at the car as he chased it.
By that time, it had already been more than six months since the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigations had finished its investigation of the incident and delivered its report to the city. That report, however, wouldn't be made public as the city kept the findings private, citing an apparently nonexistent policy of reviewing incidents for discipline only after a grand jury had considered the case.
A Cuyahoga County grand jury in Oct. 2020 declined to file any charges, at which time Beachwood reviewed the BCI investigation and proceeded with the termination process. The arbitrator said in its ruling that the city failed in that process to provide specific ways in which the offier violated city policies.
The ruling also said that the city's prosecution of the suspect complicated its case against the officer: It couldn't argue that the car posed no threat to the officer, and thus he should be fired for shooting at the suspect, and argue that the car did pose a threat to the officer as it sought charges against the suspect.
Outcry from the community came swift, especially during the summer of 2020 as social justice protests swept the nation in the aftermath of George Floyd's murder, with op-eds and council meetings filled with angry comments over both the officer's behavior and the city's handling of the incident.
Later, Rogers sued the city, the suspect sent a demand letter in anticipation of a lawsuit of his own, and the police union filed an appeal.
Their defense, and the one Rogers relied on in his suit, was that the suspect posed an immediate danger to the officer and attempted to run him over. The city argued, and the arbitrator agreed, that he used unjustified force as he ran after the vehicle and continued to fire at it.
Councilman Mike Burkons, who has battled with city leaders and his colleagues since he took office, said the city screwed up from the start in the same fashion it has bungled other issues.
"I think many mistakes were made by the people who saw the footage and decided to keep it from the public," he told Scene, "while for 13 months also trying to follow union rules to have this incident reviewed and the person terminated properly."
He contends the city also failed in letting the BCI report sit unreviewed for a year and a half, the entire time during which Rogers was on paid leave, when no written policy prevented them from beginning the termination process prior to the grand jury's decision.
That the suspect was fleeing in a stolen car, that he was found with a gun when he was finally arrested, none of that should matter in how Rogers' case is dealt with, Burkons said. All the officer knew at the time was the guy was suspected of stealing a $59 hat.
"If you're upset about George Floyd, you should be furious about this," he told Scene.
“We are currently exploring all of our options, including a possible appeal,”Mayor Martin S. Horwitz and the law department said in a statement
. “We will be consulting with our outside counsel on the issue of re-instatement.”
According to public records obtained by Channel 19
, Rogers' supervisor had previously wrote that the officer had a “noted a pattern of policy violations and unsafe behavior. This behavior may be a careless disregard for policy or Ptl. Rogers could be experiencing 'tunnel vision' while engaged in stressful/emergency type calls.”
In a statement, Gwen Callender,the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police, said: "We have been eagerly waiting for this day to have a neutral arbitrator issue his award after considering the evidence presented by the city and by the union. We are eager for the city to reinstate Officer Rogers to continue his record of loyal and professional service to the citizens of Beachwood."