Editorials, Opinion

CSC upholds Dalton termination — for the wrong reasons

Last week, the Westover Civil Service Commission rightfully voted to uphold the termination of former Westover Police Officer Aaron Dalton. But the reasons the commissioners gave — or did not give — is concerning.

As Erin Cleavenger reported, Dalton’s original dismissal by the police review board was based on three allegations of misconduct — two against civilians and one against fellow officers — but the commission did not agree all three were grounds for termination.

The first allegation stemmed from an Aug. 25, 2019, incident in which Dalton and Officer Justice Carver beat up and arrested William Cox for filming them on his phone as they drove by in a marked cruiser. Cox had recorded the entire encounter on his phone, which mysteriously disappeared for nearly two years.

This resulted in one of the two civil rights lawsuits the City of Westover settled. This particular lawsuit (for false arrest) was settled for $750,000. The other, also involving Dalton, was for the violent assault and arrest of Andre Howton. In that incident, Officer Zachary Fecsko was the primary assailant while Dalton stood by. That lawsuit was settled for $350,000.

After reviewing the evidence of this allegation, the civil service commission determined that this was not grounds for termination.

The second incident occurred on Aug. 26, 2020, at the Econo Lodge when police were looking for Travaughn Guerrant, aka “Taco,” who had an open warrant for burglary out of Ohio. Dalton was the highest-ranking officer at the scene, and a junior officer had to remind Dalton that they couldn’t search the hotel room without consent or a warrant — neither of which they had. Dalton searched the premises anyway (which is caught on police body cam footage), in clear violation of the Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

After reviewing the evidence of this allegation, the civil service commission determined that this was not grounds for termination.

The third allegation, according to the commission’s report, was Dalton had exhibited a “pattern of harassment, bullying, sexual harassment, racism, destruction of homeless people’s property, urinating on homeless people’s property and other violations, in addition to public Facebook posts Dalton made while suspended, including derogatory statements about the Westover PD as a whole and false statements about individual coworkers.

After review all the evidence and testimony related to various elements of this allegation, the civil service commission found that Dalton “engaged in a pattern of abusive behavior … in which he harassed fellow officers, harassed coworkers” (not acknowledging Dalton’s abuse of homeless individuals). His behavior toward his peers (not members of the public), the commission determined, rose to the level of termination.

That is what we find concerning.

Of course, it is unacceptable for someone to threaten and/or harass their coworkers. And yes, that should be a fireable offense.

But for an officer of the law, it should also be a fireable offense to blatantly disregard the rights granted to civilians by the U.S. Constitution. Yes, even once, if it can be proven. And especially if it happens more than once.

What does it say about the state of our law enforcement that civil rights violations aren’t considered grounds for termination? Apparently not even suspension, seeing as the two officers involved in the Cox and Howton incidents seem to have never faced disciplinary action.

When the only accountability officers face is for crimes against each other, it’s no wonder the public struggles to trust law enforcement. Westover PD — and police in general — must do better.