Fired officer gets job back

WARREN — A city police officer fired in May for providing false information during a 2015 use of force incident is expected to return to work as a result of an arbitration ruling.

Jason McCollum, a 14-year veteran of the force, was notified Monday that arbitrator Michael E. Zobrak ruled that he should not have lost his job, because there was no evidence that he intentionally lied about what happened during the May 2015 arrest of Jimmie White.

White in December 2015 filed a use of force complaint against officer Christopher Martin stating he was injured during the May 25, 2015, arrest.

Martin and McCollum, in separate vehicles, went to  596 Atlantic St. NE to investigate reports of gunshots being fired in the area. Upon arrival, the officers determined the weapon was fired accidentally and there were no injuries.

The officers reported telling White, an uncle of the home’s resident who arrived later, on several occasions to leave the area, but he became belligerent and refused to leave. An audio recording showed White was asked to leave at least six times before Martin placed him under arrest.

It also shows there was a 52-second struggle between Martin and White before White was placed in handcuffs. White claimed Martin attempted to break his arm during the arrest. He also made the same claim while in the police vehicle on the way to the Trumbull County Jail and again once he arrived at the jail.

After White was taken to Trumbull County Jail, a corrections officer asked if a police lieutenant would return to the jail to investigate White’s use of force complaint.

No use of force report was done at the time of the incident. McCollum stated he was talking to another witness at the time of White’s arrest.

During an investigation of the incident, Police Chief Eric Merkel stated McCollum was not truthful in his statements.

In a May 2 pre-disciplinary hearing letter, Merkel wrote: “You were not truthful during your interview with Internal Affairs Lt. Jeff Cole on Dec. 30, 2015. You denied witnessing a use of force; denied assisting in the arrest; and asserted that, ‘Jimmie was handcuffed in seconds’ by Officer Martin without a struggle.”

However, those statements were contradicted by details later provided by Martin on a departmental Level One report, according to Merkel.

During a March 23, 2016, interview at the department, McCollum denied White made allegations of unreasonable force and denied witnessing the use of force.

Martin was given a two-day suspension for failing to file a use of force incident report.

Attorney Robert J. Rohrbaugh II, an attorney representing McCollum, said the arbitrator did not find  evidence his client provided false information, so the arbitrator overturned the firing.

Zobrak in his 14-page ruling stated: “the record does not conclusively show that the Grievant (McCollum) knowingly made false statements.”

The arbitrator, however, agreed with the city’s contention that McCollum should have filed a use of force report at the time of the incident.

When questioned why McCollum was fired, Merkel said he would have been given five days off if his only violation was the failure to report the use of force. When questioned why Martin received a two-day suspension, Merkel said McCollum would have been given a longer suspension because he had been counseled for the same violation five days prior to the May 25 incident.

“(McCollum’s)  discipline is greater than Officer Martin’s because it included not only his failure to file a report and his misstatements regarding what happened during the arrest, which Officer Martin was also guilty of, but also his failure to report White’s claim of injury and to call for a supervisor to come to the jail after White’s complaint,” Zobrak wrote.

The fact that both officers’ statements were found to be untrue and Martin received a two-day suspension while McCollum was fired cannot be overlooked, Zobrak wrote.

“There was just cause to suspend him for 30 days for his failure to file a report over the use of force during White’s arrest, his failure to advise his supervisor of White’s complaint of injury and his misstatements of that incident without fully investigating the accuracy of his recollection of the incident,” Zobrak wrote.

Rohrbaugh said McCollum intends to return to work, but has not been given an assignment.

“I do not believe it will be hard for my client to do the actual police work even after being away for five months,” Rohrbaugh said. “The only question will be working with an administration that terminated him. We essentially went up against his boss and it was determined his boss was wrong.”

Rohrbaugh said they attempted to resolve this matter without going through arbitration, but no one was willing.