When Brandon Palma concluded his eight year commitment to the U.S. Army, achieving the rank of Sergeant, he knew exactly where he wanted to go next. Both he and his then soon-to-be bride were parts of families from the City of Oxnard area that in many ways mirrored the grim realities of a community of economic disparity and gang influence. Although opportunities presented themselves with other agencies, he felt his knowledge of and sensitivity to the complex cultural fabric of the City of Oxnard could help make him a valuable asset to its police department. He immediately became involved in department and community activities, such as the Honor Guard, Explorer Program, Toys for Tots and Special Olympics, and he self-funded twenty-nine different law enforcement seminars to better perform his duties. His personnel evaluations were superlative, especially considering his limited tenure, as his fellow officers appreciated his efforts to become more knowledgeable in the field and assist them in their duties. Department superiors who had for years instilled in their officers that they were “hunters” praised him regularly for his resourcefulness.
Then, two highly publicized incidents, neither involving Palma, caused considerable community unrest. In the aftermath of these incidents, the Department suffered a severe public relations setback. Such circumstances frequently auger ominously for the next officer involved in anything remotely controversial.
Within the span of a week in 2012, Palma was involved in two relatively routine incidents requiring force. The first occurred when Palma observed the driver of a bicycle without headlights run a stop sign late at night. He turned on his overhead lights and pursued the violator, who sped away. Suspecting that the suspect may be fleeing to avoid apprehension for more serious offenses, as he had been trained to conclude, Palma continued pursuing him, and noticed a bug-eyed look that suggested that the suspect was possibly under the influence of an illegal substance.
When the suspect crashed his bicycle, Palma sought to take him into custody in the manner in which he was trained, at various times utilizing his firearm, baton and taser. The suspect shrugged off Palma’s attempts to subdue him, while continuing to reach in his waistband area. Not seeing the outline of a weapon in the waistband area, Palma chose to holster his firearm rather than resort to deadly force, while repeatedly directing the incoherently gurgling but otherwise non-responsive suspect to the ground. Eventually, he was able to get the suspect in a position to be cuffed, with the assistance of arriving officers, while the suspect continued to reach in his waistband, precisely where drugs were later found. The suspect incurred baton blows consistent with his resistance, but no serious injuries. Palma wrote a report describing the incident in exhaustive detail.
About a week later, Palma responded to assist other officers in a Code 3 pursuit of persons possibly involved in a felony assault. Officers initiated a felony stop, per Department practice, only to receive non-compliance from the occupants of the vehicle. Officers with firearms drawn on one side of the suspect vehicle were accosted by one raging suspect, while a second suspect remained in the car, and two more emerged from the passenger side to combatively engage Palma and others. Ultimately, a suspect who persistently fought the officers and resisted handcuffing was taken into custody with minor scrapes incurred from the pavement on which he imprudently chose to maniacally struggle. Although the suspects were not found to have been involved in the crime that had been related to the Department’s dispatchers, the team of responding officers did nothing unreasonable or contrary to training.
Seemingly based on misleading booking photos that did not accurately reflect the minimal injuries in both cases, the officer trained to be a “hunter” quickly became the “hunted.” Hasty assumptions were made and conclusions drawn that force had been improperly used, without any thorough examination of the complete circumstances by a use of force expert or even internal training officers. Notwithstanding his demonstrated devotion to the City and its mission, Palma was precipitously fired on June 13, 2013.
Palma appealed the decision, and the allegations related to both incidents were reviewed by mutually agreed upon arbitrator/hearing officer Michael Prihar, who found that Palma’s actions at each step of each incident were reasonable, and therefore there was no just cause to discipline him at all. The Department produced no expert witnesses, and failed to offer reasonable alternatives to those used by Palma during the rapidly evolving incidents. Mr. Prihar recommended that Palma be reinstated with full restoration of pay and benefits, although he acknowledged that the City was legally entitled to an offset for any earnings made by Palma in the interim that would not have been earned but for the disciplinary action.
The matter was still subject to review by the City Manager, who determined, like the hearing officer, that Palma should not have been fired, and directed his return to duty.
For Brandon Palma, the nightmare of being fired for doing his job as he had been trained to do had a silver lining. He applied the same intelligence and tenacity to another career opportunity he pursued after his improper termination, in which his level of compensation now far exceeds that of his prior law enforcement position.
Palma wished to add: “As this lengthy ordeal has come to a close, I am immensely grateful to all those who believed in me and stood by me when I needed them the most; my beautiful wife and family, my friends and colleagues, the PORAC Legal Defense Fund and my attorney and his great staff.”
Palma was represented throughout by William J. Hadden (Bill) of Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver (formerly Silver, Hadden, Silver and Levine). Bill is a partner at Rains Lucia Stern St. Phalle & Silver. For over a quarter century, Bill has handled high profile criminal and administrative cases for countless public safety members and has experience in all phases of litigation. He frequently lectures and writes about prominent legal issues pertaining to them.