San Antonio Police Officer John Lee was served notice Tuesday that he faces termination for the Feb. 4 fatal shooting of Antronie Scott, 36, outside a north-central apartment complex, a deadly confrontation that many observers believe could have been averted if Lee had chosen less aggressive tactics. Lee responded after undercover officers called in uniformed officers to arrest Scott on outstanding felony drug charges. Scott exited his vehicle with his arms raised at Lee’s command, and then was fatally shot at close range as he turned toward Scott with what turned out to be a cell phone in his hand. Lee said he feared Scott was holding a gun.
The fatal shooting of an unarmed African-American by a white police officer has triggered an outpouring of protest locally and calls for Lee’s prosecution from many African-American leaders in the community who have been critical of the lack of prosecutions in cases involving police use of deadly force against unarmed citizens. Bexar County District Attorney Nico LaHood, who attended a town hall meeting at an Eastside church last week, said his office’s review of the case could take months.
“Officer Lee was issued a notice of contemplated indefinite suspension for unnecessarily placing himself in a tactical situation wherein he felt compelled to use deadly force,” San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said Tuesday.
McManus said that Lee was served notice on Tuesday, and now is entitled to a so-called “Loudermill Hearing” before any final action is taken. The hearing is named for a U.S. Supreme Court case that affirmed the rights of government workers to a due process hearing prior to any termination. Lee’s hearing before McManus will take place March 14, and likely will be attended by Lee, his commanding officer, his personal attorney, as well as McManus, his chief of staff and a member of the City Attorney’s office.
The issue of how McManus and other senior officers discipline rank and file officers who break the law or violate department rules and policies has been a subject of debate in recent meetings between McManus and community leaders who are pressing for stronger disciplinary outcomes in such cases. The police union’s collective bargaining agreement affords officers substantial protections in such instances.
McManus alone will decide the outcome of the Loudermill Hearing. There will be no third party witness testimony, but Officer Lee will be given the opportunity to cite extenuating or mitigating circumstances that he believes justified his use of deadly force. McManus will hear him out and then render a decision immediately. In the event that McManus decides to follow through with the “indefinite suspension,” Lee will be required to surrender his badge and weapon and will be dismissed from the police force and department payroll.
Lee then has the right to appeal the indefinite suspension and take the matter to arbitration. City and union officials will meet to select an arbitrator from a list of approved names, each side holding the right to strike three names from the list. Some city officials have said that arbitrators acceptable to the police union tend to favor officers and hand down lighter punishments as a way to guarantee their selection in future cases. The union won the right to such arbitration in contract negotiations in the 1980s. The Lee case could take as long as two years to resolve, and a decision by the district attorney and a grand jury also could take one year or more.
McManus’ decision will not necessarily have an impact on the district attorney’s decision. That’s because Lee is being terminated for creating a situation where he believed he had to use deadly force; in other words, for exercising bad judgment by not taking other measures that would have led to Scott’s arrest without a shooting.
“He’s not getting fired for using deadly force, but he is getting fired for creating the situation where he believed he had to use force,” one city official said. “It’s an important distinction.”
Featured image: San Antonio Police Chief William McManus speaks with Diane Peppar, the mother of Antronie Scott, who was fatally shot by Officer John Lee on Feb. 4. Photo by Scott Ball