A student crossed the street in front of an Ohio University Police Department officer’s patrol car late at night in November 2013, nearly causing a collision. The incident escalated to a chase, and an officer deployed a stun gun at the student’s back and struck him 14 times with a baton.
When the officer, John Stabler, left his car to check on the student, the student fled and a bystander tackled him. Stabler took control of the student, but he escaped and Stabler deployed his taser at the student’s back.
The student made it to the front door of Pickering Hall. He said officers pulled him from the door with such force that his key broke off in the lock. A struggle began — Stabler said the student held his key like he intended to hit officers with it, physically resisted officers and reached toward his waistband while he was on the ground. Stabler struck him with his baton. Another officer at the scene doubted whether the baton strikes were appropriate but did not intervene.
The county prosecutor found that Stabler’s actions were not criminal. After an internal investigation that spanned nearly a year, OUPD did not discipline Stabler for his conduct. OUPD Chief Andrew Powers wrote in a report that there was not enough evidence to determine whether the student was actively fighting Stabler or simply failing to comply with commands.
But Powers still found shortcomings in Stabler’s response to the situation.
“It is also my conclusion that Ofc. Stabler’s overall judgement, documentation and charging decisions were unacceptable,” he wrote.
Powers recommended in the report that Stabler undergo training in use of force and anger management. He also recommended changes to the department’s use of force policy: It was unclear, contradictory and did not require officers to intervene when they saw other officers using excessive force.
In disciplining and not disciplining officers, departments weigh many factors. Officers are human and make mistakes, but — because they handle life and death situations and hold state power — departments must hold them to high standards. Meanwhile, union agreements and arbitrator rulings regulate department disciplinary processes.
The Post reviewed 63 disciplinary actions across seven years against officers at OUPD, the Athens Police Department and the Athens County Sheriff’s Office. The severity of the mistakes and misconduct varied widely. One officer received a reprimand for being one minute late to work, while another resigned after using force against a child.
According to department rosters, most staff members have received no disciplinary actions in the past seven years — about 20 percent of staff members across departments were disciplined. Fifty-five of the 63 disciplinary actions were reprimands or warnings. Of 113 current employees on staff rosters, four have been suspended or demoted in the past seven years, and one has been fired.
Athens County Sheriff Rodney Smith declined to be interviewed for this article.
Powers and APD Chief Tom Pyle both said disciplinary actions serve to correct and record poor performance, not provide moral judgment.
“Discipline is not necessarily about punishment,” Powers said. “It’s about accountability, and it’s about performance improvement.”
Disciplining a department
Powers thinks the public underestimates the level of discipline officers must meet. Police department organization resembles that of the military — supervisors expect significant respect and compliance from officers. Officers are disciplined for relatively small infractions such as talking back to supervisors and arriving even a few minutes late to work.
“I think probably one of the biggest obstacles to understanding police discipline is television, because it never happens the way it does on TV,” Powers said. “Officers just don’t go do whatever they want, or say ‘Screw what the supervisor says, I’m going to go do this anyway.’ That generally doesn’t happen, and if it does, it doesn’t usually end well for the officer.”
APD, OUPD and the sheriff’s office have disciplined five employees for insubordination in the past seven years.
One sheriff’s deputy, Shannon Sheridan, was suspended because he didn’t wear his body armor to work and acted in a “snide condescending manner” during a disciplinary hearing about it.
Shannon was fired in 2015 after the department found him responsible for 19 policy violations. According to sheriff’s office records, he commented on a woman’s appearance and inappropriately touched her on the job.
Many disciplinary actions involve mistakes in procedure. Officers incorrectly collected evidence, neglected to check equipment or did not complete reports.
Stabler, who worked as a lieutenant until 2013, was demoted in September of that year after detaining a student for mental health evaluation without enough evidence and against that student’s will. Stabler directed another officer to detain the student based on a phone call from Dean of Students Jenny Hall-Jones requesting officers check on the student, but Stabler did not take necessary steps to determine the student needed to be taken to the hospital against his will.
Previously, Stabler had been suspended twice. He received a one-day suspension for using a department vehicle for personal business and another one-day suspension after he failed to properly supervise officers, did not complete reports or communicate properly with command staff and was filmed shouting “don’t touch the f---ing horse” while he worked at Palmer Fest.
Stabler has not been disciplined in recent years and currently works as the department’s community relations officer. He said he would not comment without permission from the department, and Powers said the department would prefer to allow the records to speak for themselves.
Including the incident for which Stabler received retraining, three incidents in the records provided to The Post involved use of force. In one incident, an APD officer drew his stun gun and improperly documented it. One sheriff’s deputy, Randy Secoy, used force against an elementary school student, according to sheriff’s office records.
Secoy responded to a call in May 2011 about a student in Trimble Elementary School being disruptive in class and threatening to swallow tacks. While detaining the boy, several witnesses said Secoy drew his stun gun, said “I’m going to light you up” and swore repeatedly while he roughly took the boy to the cruiser. A witness said the boy said “I’m scared” as Secoy took him to the vehicle and the boy had red marks on his arms from the handcuffs.
Secoy resigned from his position at the sheriff's office. For a different incident that occurred while he worked at the Nelsonville Police Department, Secoy was charged with abduction, assault and interfering with a person’s civil rights. He pleaded guilty to persistent disorderly conduct in January 2014 and agreed to permanently surrender his police officer certification. He was sentenced to 30 days in jail with a $250 fine.
Allegations of dishonesty
In the most recent serious case of officer misconduct, APD Officer Matthew Warren was fired for dishonesty after an internal investigation found that he scratched paint on the men’s locker room wall. Arbitrator Bruce McIntosh ordered Warren be allowed to return to work in January, finding that other APD officers had lied and not been fired.
APD Chief Tom Pyle said those incidents never rose to the level Warren’s did: Officers may have made accidental errors in written reports whereas Warren repeatedly lied in an internal investigation. The arbitrator’s ruling altered Warren’s termination to a six-month suspension.
Though the incident began with minor property damage, it had implications on Warren’s ability to perform his job. If any officer is found to be dishonest in an internal investigation, the prosecutor must disclose the dishonesty each time the officer testifies in court.
Athens City Law Director Lisa Eliason said the city has never maintained a “Brady list,” a registry of officers who have disclosures mandated under Brady v. Maryland. Until now, an officer in Athens has never accused of dishonesty, she said. The law department will not begin keeping a Brady list after the Warren ruling.
“This is a small town,” Eliason said. “If an officer has done something like that, we pretty much know.”
The arbitrator ruling that put Warren back to work appears to describe six instances in which APD officers had been dishonest and had not been fired. Not all of those instances are corroborated in records obtained in an additional public records request. One incident appears to be described twice, and Pyle said that officer did not lie, just did not preemptively disclose an "embarrassing off-duty incident."
One incident the arbitrator called “overwhelming evidence of ignoring termination for dishonest conduct” appears differently in public records and in the ruling.
The ruling states an officer abused sick leave to the extent that the county prosecutor determined the conduct was theft in office, but APD gave the officer a final contract instead of immediately firing him. According to the department’s records, Athens County Prosecutor Keller Blackburn determined that the conduct was not theft in office and the officer was reprimanded for failing to turn forms in. Pyle said that officer was given the final contract for habitual tardiness and later resigned.
Pyle said he has no idea why facts in the arbitrator ruling differ from department records. Errors in fact wouldn’t be enough grounds for the city to appeal the ruling.
“Officer Warren is back to work,” Pyle said. “And he’s conducted himself admirably since returning.”
Correction: A previous version of this report incorrectly identified OUPD Chief Andrew Powers, rather than APD Chief Tom Pyle, as saying an officer did not lie. The article has been updated to reflect the most accurate information.