One of the six Omaha police officers fired over the controversial arrests of three brothers in north Omaha last year will get his job back.
Officer Bradley D. Canterbury was fired in April, after a video of the arrests near 33rd and Seward Street surfaced on YouTube. He was the officer who appeared to throw Octavious Johnson to the ground, later handcuffing Johnson and striking him several times.
Canterbury appealed his termination to an arbitrator, who issued a decision Wednesday: The officer should be reinstated.
Sharee Johnson, mother of the three brothers who were arrested, said she was “shocked” to learn of the arbitrator's decision.
“(I'm) disappointed,” she said. “Let down. There's no other words for it. I thought that justice would prevail.”
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a similar statement.
“People of Omaha should be outraged that an officer accused of violently assaulting an Omaha resident could be back on the job,” the organization said, adding that by returning Canterbury to the force, “the Omaha Police Department is sending the message that it tolerates such behavior.”
In a 38-page report, arbitrator Sherwood Malamud wrote that Canterbury's firing wasn't about how he handled Octavious Johnson. Instead, Canterbury was terminated because of discrepancies in how he explained the incident to his superiors.
In his initial account of the March 21 arrests, Canterbury explained only the first half of his encounter with Johnson. Canterbury said Johnson showed up after police arrived to investigate a parking complaint — and repeatedly ignored orders to stay away from a tow truck.
Canterbury eventually pushed Johnson to the ground with a “hip toss” and ordered him to put his hands behind his back. Johnson ignored the order, so Canterbury struck him three times, on the shoulder.
A short time later, other officers who had been helping Canterbury ran to chase another Johnson brother into the family's home, leaving Canterbury and Octavious Johnson — who was now handcuffed and on the ground — alone.
The neighbor's video captured what happened next: Johnson begins to move and Canterbury strikes him again, three times. That part of the story wasn't covered in Canterbury's first report. It did, however, show up in his second formal account of the incident, which was part of an internal investigation that took place after the video hit the Internet.
In a letter recommending Canterbury's termination, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer said it appeared Canterbury was trying to cover up his actions.
Schmaderer wrote to Canterbury that it appeared the officer had deliberately left out some facts“because you either thought that no one had witnessed the event or you felt that your second series of strikes on the male party was not in compliance with the Standard Operating Procedures of the Omaha Police Department.”
Canterbury and the police union, however, said that wasn't the case. They argued that the initial report was incomplete because Canterbury had been given little time to prepare it — and he had had to write it on his iPhone.
Malamud pointed to comments that Canterbury made during a conversation with an Internal Affairs investigator. He told the investigator he didn't see the first time he struck Johnson and the second time as separate events.
“That is a continuous situation,” Canterbury said. “That is the beginning to the end. That is him being combative from the, from when I seen that truck turn the corner from 33rd and Seward and come at me to when I finally said, 'Here (officers,) take him please.' ”
The arbitrator took Canterbury's side, saying the city had failed to prove that Canterbury was guilty of anything other than “sloppy report writing.”
Malamud also notes that both sets of strikes on Johnson were found to fall within the department's policies on the use of force.
The ACLU recently sued Schmaderer and his officers in federal court over the incident on behalf of the Johnson family, alleging that some of the 32 officers who responded to the scene used excessive force and completed a search without a warrant.
Canterbury is the only officer to appeal his termination. Three others were fired in April: Sgt. Aaron Von Behren and Officers James Kinsella and Justin A. Reeve.
Kinsella and Von Behren are facing criminal charges over an alleged coverup of video seized from another Johnson brother at the scene.
Two more officers, John D. Payne and Canterbury's partner, Dyea L. Rowland, were fired this month for their roles in the incident. Both are awaiting their pre-termination hearings.
In a statement posted on its website, the Omaha police union said the decision was “the product of a fair and impartial hearing,” adding that “this case was never about excessive force, as can clearly be seen in the arbitration ruling, as well as from statements previously made by County Attorney Don Kleine.”
Canterbury's attorney did not return a call for comment.
Reinstatements of fired officers have occurred a handful of times in recent years:
—Two officers fired in September 2011 after a fight outside Creighton Medical Center were later reinstated by an arbitrator.
— In 2003, an officer fired after making controversial statements on television took his case to the city's Personnel Board and went back to work.
—And in 2002, two officers were back to work a month after they were fired over claims that they had taken nearly $40,000 out of a bank account without the owner's permission.
Assistant City Attorney Bernard in den Bosch said the city will now decide whether it wants to appeal the arbitrator's decision. If it doesn't, Police Chief Todd Schmaderer will decide where to assign Canterbury — and if the officer will first need to go through any kind of additional training.
“We won't be rushing to get him back to work today or tomorrow,” in den Bosch said. “We'll figure out what we want to do and make a decision.”