Peace Officer’s Termination Upheld Following Failure To Investigate Child Abuse Allegations

CATEGORY: Client Update for Public Agencies, Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Employers, Public Safety
DATE: Dec 06, 2021

LCW Partner Geoffrey Sheldon and Senior Counsel Stefanie Vaudreuil successfully represented a city in a peace officer’s termination appeal.

In April 2018, a civilian reported to the city’s police department (Department) that her husband physically abused her and her children. The Department then dispatched a police officer to investigate. The officer spoke with the family, including one of the abused children who showed the officer their injuries and confirmed that their father hit them. Although the family spoke Spanish, the officer did not speak Spanish fluently and failed to request any translation assistance. The officer also failed to report the abuse following the visit. The next day, the children’s school contacted Child Protective Services to report the abuse, and another Department investigator responded. That investigator noted the visible injuries on the children and their mother.

The Department then investigated the first officer’s response to the child abuse allegations. In August 2018, the Department terminated the officer for failing to investigate the report of child abuse and turning off his body-worn camera during the interview with the family without reasonable excuse. The officer appealed his termination.

Following an appeal, a hearing officer issued a non-binding recommendation that the officer be reinstated due to a lack of credible evidence to support the termination. Specifically, the hearing officer found that the officer’s failure to submit a child abuse report was reasonable because: (i) the Department did not notify the officer that he was being dispatched for a child abuse call; and (ii) the officer believed the children were being disciplined rather than abused. As to the latter issue, the officer alleged he: did not hear certain family members’ statements about the child abuse; and believed that some family members were lying to him.

The City Manager reviewed the hearing officer’s recommendation in accordance with the applicable memorandum of understanding. Based on this review, the City Manager sustained the officer’s termination because the dispatch call to the officer indicated alleged child abuse; the officer knew that the children were being hit; the officer saw the children’s injuries, and the officer failed to ask follow-up questions from other potential witnesses.

The officer filed a petition for writ of mandate to challenge the City Manager’s decision in superior court.  The officer contended that the City Manager abused his discretion because there was insufficient evidence that the officer failed to report child abuse. The officer alleged he had a subjective belief that there was no abuse to report. The court disagreed, noting that the officer’s failure to report the child abuse is viewed under an objective standard as to what a reasonable person would do.  The Court found that a reasonable person would have heard key statements by dispatch and the reporting family members about the alleged abuse. The court found that it was the officer’s poor investigation – including his failure to request a translator when interviewing the family and his lack of observation and questioning skills–that overlooked the child abuse.

Based on the foregoing, the court denied the officer’s petition on the grounds that the City Manager’s decision to uphold the termination was within his discretion and supported by the evidence.

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