York mayor: Arbitration hearing for Clayton Swartz held Tuesday; ruling could be months away

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch
Officer Clayton Swartz, at right, stands with former Chief Troy Bankert at the scene of a Sept. 26, 2018, homicide.
Dawn J. Sagert photo

An arbitration hearing for York City Police Officer Clayton Swartz happened Tuesday, but it could be some time until the presiding arbitrator weighs in, according to York Mayor Michael Helfrich.

"We're looking at about 45 days until everything wraps up, and then it's in the arbitrator's hands," the mayor said Wednesday.

Swartz remains on unpaid administrative leave after three people publicly accused him of participating in a reenactment of George Floyd's death while at a party in the York City home of his fiancée's mother.

An internal trial board cleared Swartz of wrongdoing, but York City appealed that finding to York County Court.

More:Judge orders York City Police trial board to issue findings in Clayton Swartz case

More:Ex-cop guilty of murder and manslaughter in George Floyd case

More:York City: Police union mulled retaliation against inspector after Swartz probe

More:York City cop accused of acting out George Floyd's death at party

The city has declined to return Swartz to active duty. The White Rose Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police filed a grievance demanding Swartz be reinstated with full back pay, according to court records. And that's what Tuesday's arbitration hearing was about.

Floyd was killed by then-Officer Derek Chauvin, who placed his knee on Floyd's neck for about 9 minutes in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. A jury this month convicted Chauvin of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter; sentencing is set for June 25, according to The Associated Press.

Swartz maintains he didn't reenact or make fun of Floyd's death, and a three-officer internal trial board cleared him of that and two related allegations last summer.

However, York City officials appealed the trial board's decision in York County Court. Helfrich has said he won't return Swartz to active duty unless ordered to by a court, and said he doesn't believe Swartz should interact with the public.

Judge OKs arbitration: Earlier this month, York County Common Pleas Judge Matthew D. Menges ruled the arbitration and the court appeal can both go forward at the same time.

In Pennsylvania, such arbitration hearings are closed to the public.

Helfrich said the arbitration hearing "proceeded properly."

"Both parties have the ability to file briefs 30 days after receipt of the transcript," he said, adding he was told it takes about two weeks for a hearing transcript to be completed. It could be between two and 3½ months before an arbitrator hands down his or her decision, the mayor said, noting he believes a ruling from a York County judge could happen prior to that.

Attorney Ed Paskey, who represents Swartz, has said the three complainants were inconsistent about what they witnessed, including details about where Swartz was standing and who was in the room at the time. Paskey also represents the White Rose Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, which is the city police officers' union.

Court filings in the case indicate Paskey maintains Swartz was forthcoming and truthful throughout the investigation and when he testified at the trial-board hearing last summer.

Neither Paskey nor White Rose FOP President Matt Irvin responded Wednesday to messages seeking comment for this article.

Swartz allegedly "was not forthcoming and truthful about all of the events surrounding the alleged reenactment of the George Floyd murder," Helfrich wrote in a recent op-ed piece that ran in York's local newspapers.

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich offers face masks to those without as about 100 people gather in Continental Square in peaceful protest for George Floyd, to remember those who have died at the hands of police and to celebrate the communication experienced throughout the week between community members and officials in York City, Friday, June 5, 2020. Dawn J. Sagert photo

The background: A three-officer internal trial board found Swartz not guilty of conduct unbecoming an officer and not guilty of failing to be truthful, both with a 2-1 vote, according to court records.

It unanimously found that Swartz did not violate the York City Police Department's use-of-alcohol policy, determining that when he texted a family member of his fiancée's the next morning saying he was "blackout drunk," he was not being literal.

The trial board's written findings state that the three complainants weren't called to testify at Swartz's hearing, and that during the hearing Paskey pointed out inconsistencies in their accounts. Two of the complainants have told The York Dispatch they weren't subpoenaed for, or even alerted about, the hearing.

"Cross examination is the primary method for testing the believability of a witness and the truthfulness of his/her testimony," the trial board wrote. "Following the hearing, the trial board was very disappointed it did not have the opportunity to hear direct or cross examination testimony of the Complainants."

The trial board's Sept. 10 determination clearing Swartz of wrongdoing came after a nine-hour hearing on Aug. 19.

New art memorializing the death of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter covers the north side of the Penn Street art bridge, Wednesday, June 3, 2020. 
John A. Pavoncello photo

The allegations: Three people allege that Swartz and his then-fianceé's uncle, Christopher Owens, reenacted Floyd's murder during a graduation party in the York City home of the fianceé's family. 

Swartz was 26 years old at the time of the May 30 party; Owens was 48.

Owens told investigators and The York Dispatch that he made the comment "I can't breathe" while lying on a couch, but that Swartz — who was standing next to him — did nothing but "chuckle" in a placating way at Owens, who is biracial.

All three accusers told The York Dispatch they saw Swartz put his knee against Owens' neck and heard him ask Owens if he could breathe and if he was dead yet while Owens convulsed on the couch.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at levans@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.