A Twice-Fired Boston Police Officer Just Got His Job Back

David C. Williams is now a BPD officer for the third time since first joining the force in 1991.

David C. Williams is a hard man to fire for good.

The Boston Police Department terminated Williams in January 2012 after an administrative trial board ruled he placed Michael P. O’Brien in an illicit choke-hold and then lied about the man’s March 16, 2009, arrest—a move that later led the city to pay O’Brien $1.4 million in a civil court settlement.

But on Thursday afternoon, an independent arbitrator awarded the veteran cop his job, back pay, benefits, and other compensation—Williams earned $84,700 in 2011, his last full year with the force—plus he got to keep any job seniority accrued since his termination.

In a 44-page decision, Michael Ryan, the independent arbitrator, wrote that O’Brien, who filed a 2009 civilian complaint leading Williams to be brought up on charges, was not a credible witness, was intoxicated during the evening, and had motive to lie. Ryan wrote:

“(I)t is clear to me that O’Brien’s account of the incident was not truthful. If officers became aggressive, and there is no doubt that they did, it was because the behavior of O’Brien and his friends warranted it.”

Howard Friedman, O’Brien’s attorney, said that his client came forward and filed a complaint against Williams because he believed, as a Middlesex County corrections officer at the time, he would be a credible witness against an officer with a record of complaints. “This is quite a surprise,” Friedman said in an interview. “This report has a nasty edge, and is prejudiced toward the police and Williams.”

The Boston Police Patrolmen’s Association appealed the trial board’s ruling to the arbitrator after Williams’ termination.

Williams had been the first Boston Police officer fired under Commissioner Edward F. Davis’s one-strike policy for dismissing officers who lie in department reports, in court, or to department investigators. Thursday’s ruling erases that dubious distinction. “I find the decision outrageous,” Davis said in a statement. “We are reviewing our options to determine the appropriate legal response.”

Williams and his partner, Diep Nguyen, were called to 280 Hanover St. in the North End after complaints of a noisy argument. O’Brien and his friends had backed down the street the wrong way and clipped a double-parked BMW. O’Brien testified he believed the BMW’s owner was a federal agent who’d threatened him. He attempted to videotape Williams and Nguyen, who he believed weren’t investigating his complaint. O’Brien alleged Williams charged him when he took out his cell phone, drove him into the pavement and put him in a choke hold to subdue him, causing him to suffer brain damage.

In his ruling, Ryan never acknowledged that state law allows people to use cell phones to videotape police or that a civilian named Simon Glik had recently won a $170,000 award against the city after a rough arrest by an officer. Instead, he wrote O’Brien’s testimony was an intentional bit of deception by O’Brien. In his testimony, O’Brien admitted he was worried about the damage a run-in with a federal agent would have on an application he’d made to join the military’s special forces. So, Ryan contended, he had motive to fabricate police misconduct.

He also gave weight to Williams testimony that O’Brien was unruly. The officer testified at the hearing that O’Brien was standing in the middle of Hanover Street. His partner tried to arrest him, but he pushed him away. So, Williams leapt from his cruiser and tried to restrain him so he could be handcuffed.

During the trial board, Williams and O’Brien’s medical experts disagreed over whether the evidence indicated he was choked. However, Williams’ partner said he saw O’Brien in a choke-hold, which is against department policy. That led to Williams’ dismissal.

In the decision released Thursday, Ryan concluded Williams acted appropriately because O’Brien was “intoxicated” and it wasn’t clear that he wasn’t armed. “There was no just cause for this termination,” Ryan wrote. “This approach was aggressive, but I am convinced it was warranted.”

For the BPD, there’s a certain horrible déjà-vu quality to all of this. In 1999, Williams was fired for his role in the notorious 1995 near-fatal beating of plainclothes officer Michael Cox, who was mistaken for a homicide suspect. An arbitrator later ordered the department to rehire Williams and reinstate him with about $500,000 in back pay. Williams remained with the department until his termination in 2012, and now, he’s back again.

“This man is very lucky,” Friedman said. “He has nine lives.”

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