DES MOINES — The Iowa Court of Appeals has reversed the district court ruling that reinstated former Ottumwa police officer Mark Milligan, saying violations of department rules were enough to justify his suspension and termination.
The case stems from a January 2017 call about a possible stolen car. Milligan, then a sergeant with the department, was the highest ranking officer on the scene.
Officers found the car was indeed stolen and detained two suspects. After that happened, a juvenile who was not suspected of any crime asked Officer Eric Orr about retrieving her belongings from the car.
Orr threatened to arrest the juvenile for interference with official acts and eventually arrested her on a charge of “harassing a public official because she threatened to beat my ass.” A review of the incident by Lt. Chad Farrington concluded Orr lacked probable cause and engaged in “petty, unprofessional banter” before the arrest.
Farrington’s review and recommendation led to a formal investigation of Orr and Milligan. Milligan was found to have violated department rules regarding supervision of subordinates. Milligan also told investigators he had not thought Orr was antagonizing the juvenile until reviewing video with Farrington, a stance apparently contradicted by Milligan saying “You antagonizing her,” to Orr at the police station after the arrest.
The Ottumwa Civil Service Commission upheld Milligan’s suspension and termination. Milligan sued, and the district court found the disciplinary process both harsh and arbitrary and that McAndrew was biased against Milligan. It ordered Milligan reinstated.
The appeals court found that there is no basis for bias alone to reverse discipline by a police chief and also disagreed with the district court’s conclusion that bias tainted the disciplinary proceedings.
It also questioned whether Milligan was more aware of the interactions between Orr and the juvenile than he said. “[T]he surveillance video shows Sergeant Milligan was at least at times aware of — and at times actively participated in — the escalating interaction,” between the two.
The court also rejected Milligan’s explanation for his conversation with Orr after the arrest:
“Sergeant Milligan characterizes his comments as ‘joking,’ but he does not explain how he could joke about Officer Orr ‘antagonizing’ B.H. if he had no idea of the interaction between Officer Orr and B.H. The Commission explicitly found he ‘was not credible in explaining his impressions of the events on January 5, 2017,’ and we give weight to this finding.”