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Weigh appeal carefully

Published November 02. 2013 4:00AM

A state Board of Mediation and Arbitration decision ordering the city to reinstate a New London police officer fired for shooting an unarmed suspect on Aug. 24, 2011 shows the legal and moral intricacies involved in assessing such situations.

Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio's decision to terminate Officer Thomas Northup in March 2012 seemed well grounded, as we noted in a March 24 editorial. After all, the mayor had in his hands an internal investigation that concluded that the force used by Officer Northup in firing five shots at the unarmed man was "excessive and unreasonable" and his "tactics were not in accordance with (police) training."

Not so fast, concludes the 2-1 decision by the state board. Citing court precedent in such life-and-death cases, "officers are given the benefit of the doubt even when they make mistakes of fact," the decision states.

In the opinion of two of the board members, to sustain a penalty as severe as firing, the city would need to demonstrate that the officer could not have had a "reasonable belief" even if mistaken that "he expected the suspect to draw a gun and thus present an imminent threat." The city's case failed to meet that threshold, they ruled.

Richard Podurgiel, a retired personnel director in Norwich, dissented.

The wounded suspect, left paralyzed, has a substantial criminal record. Curtis Cunningham was apparently high on drugs when he stole an ice truck, careered through the city and flipped the truck on its side at the intersection of Bank Street and Jefferson Avenue. Confronting him in the damaged truck cab, Officer Northup stated he fired after Mr. Cummingham refused to follow an order to show his hands, dropped them toward his waist, had a bulge in his shirt that could be a gun, and began to turn toward him.

A report by the attorney general's office concluded Mr. Cunningham was shot once in each arm, twice in the lower back. One shot missed.

Voicing his strong disagreement with the decision, Mayor Finizio vowed to appeal. He should do so only after a careful analysis of whether an appeal has a substantial chance of success. In language that was surely chosen carefully, the majority said it "strongly believe(s) the termination was without cause."

Alarming were the board's comments that the mayor "was unfamiliar with the legal precedents in this area," concluding that his firing decision was "due to ignorance, of the applicable law." Given the city's legal exposure, it is reasonable for the City Council to inquire what advice the mayor sought and received before acting.

These decisions must be based on the best legal advice, not emotion. At the very least, it is questionable if that happened here.

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