Once again, an arbitrator has overturned a lengthy disciplinary pay reduction previously imposed by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, finding it without any just cause. On May 17, 2014, Arbitrator Michael Prihar revoked in its entirety the 120-hour reduction given to Sergeant John Manzano for his alleged mishandling of a training exercise in 2011, concluding that he was in no way the cause of a minor injury inflicted in that event by another employee. Sergeant Manzano was represented throughout the disciplinary and appeal process by this author.
For two years, Training Sergeant John Manzano, a 17-year veteran of the Department, zealously developed scenarios for his troops, always in search of a new and vibrant twist on what could otherwise be mundane and repetitious exercises. He would, on occasion, institute reality-based encounters designed to generate spontaneous reactions to test the alacrity of staff members to best prepare them for an actual emergency situation. After every one of the 50 scenarios he conducted, he submitted an extensive after-action report describing each task and how it was accomplished. None of the scenarios resulted in a single injury, and none was even the object of criticism or suggestion by superiors.
In May 2011, Sergeant Manzano was approached by staff members with an idea for a scenario that had been inspired by an actual incident in their own Southwest Detention Center, in which an inmate ran through the facility, entered an office and battered a sergeant. Because, historically, personnel tended to react somewhat lethargically to announced training, the group devised a plan to test the responsiveness of control center and floor personnel, to be triggered by the broadcast of the flight of a deputy dressed as an inmate. A deputy volunteered for the mission, which was to run from one end of the facility until apprehended by staff, who at the time of capture were to be notified by strategically placed safety officers that it was all just a drill, so as to minimize physical interaction.
The following day, the plan was put in place, the broadcast made, and the runner sent on his way. After winding his way through the facility, personnel responded, safety officers called warnings, and the runner was embraced by two deputies who understood a drill was in progress. He was then gently guided to the floor, restrained, unresisting and incapacitated. Everyone, from the control center to the floor, had performed flawlessly.
Except for one misguided correctional deputy, that is. Ignoring two safety officers’ directions to stop, as well as the obvious immobility of the runner, who had two large deputies holding him on the floor, he ran to the runner and without the slightest provocation, kicked him in the head, causing a minor cut. The kicker described his use of force to superiors as a deliberate “distraction blow” that was his “only option,” but alternately told others that it was just an “accident.”
At the time, the Department’s own website prominently displayed the agency’s promulgated core values, as it does today. Those core values, which supposedly comprise immutable principles that guide the daily actions of the organization, include:
- – Promotion of reasonable risk-taking
- – Promotion of honesty
- – Enforcement of its values
Accordingly, it had to be expected that an investigation into the questionable behavior of the kicker would ensue. But the Department somehow decided to turn its own values upside down, and solely investigate and sanction the conduct of Sergeant Manzano, who was charged with failing to supervise, failing to more safely attire the participants, and failing to be at the exact location at which the runner was contained. Upon receiving a 120-hour pay reduction, Sergeant Manzano appealed, and Arbitrator Michael Prihar was mutually selected to hear the case.
At the hearing, in an astonishing repudiation of its boldly stated values, the Department’s own investigator testified that the kicker’s use of force was justified, and that he saw no reason to reflect upon the kicker’s contradictory statements, as he failed to even contact half of the percipient witnesses. The evidence showed that the Department had not disciplined a single employee behind a training injury for decades, if ever, and that not discipline nor counseling nor training was given to the kicker, either for his use of force or his statements. For reasons unknown, it was Sergeant Manzano — and him alone — who unwittingly found himself in the crosshairs of the administration.
In his award, the arbitrator found no grounds for discipline, citing the Department’s own value statements as repelling any basis for punishment. By having never questioned any of Sergeant Manzano’s previous training efforts, and by promoting “reasonable risk-taking” while promising not to penalize a member for even an “honest mistake,” the Department lost any basis upon which to impose any discipline. The arbitrator found that there was no basis to conclude that Sergeant Manzano should have expected his employer’s disapproval or that discipline might result from a reality-based scenario. The arbitrator also expressed concerns about the Department’s refusal to scrutinize the actions of the kicker, whose unjustifiable behavior he found to be the exclusive cause of the minor injury inflicted on the runner, behavior that was sufficiently egregious so as to not be within the realm of predictability by Sergeant Manzano.
The espoused values of the Riverside Sheriff’s Department are clearly and articulately stated, progressive and laudable. Indeed, it is not every agency with the foresight to codify reasonable risk-taking while recognizing that not punishing honest mistakes along the way actually enhances learning, adaptation and growth. But these lofty values, no matter how artfully phrased and prominently displayed, become meaningless for all if those at the top of the organization, as in this case, refuse to assimilate or apply them. Ultimately, Sergeant Manzano received no discipline from an arbitrator because he deserved none, based on the employer’s own well-communicated standards and values.
Sergeant Manzano wishes to thank LDF for its unwavering support of his three-year odyssey for vindication, and for that of his many staff members as well.