Arbitrator says York City officer accused of reenacting Floyd death can return to work

Brandon Addeo
York Dispatch
York City Police Chief Troy Bankert, left, and Officer Clayton Swartz as officials investigate a fatal shooting reported near the corner of South West and West Princess Streets in York City, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. York City Mayor Michael Helfrich said the shooting resulted in the death of an adult male and an injured juvenile who was transported to York Hospital. Dawn J. Sagert photo

An arbitrator has said that York City Police Officer Clayton Swartz can return to work. But a final decision hasn't yet come to pass, the city's mayor said. 

During his Monday address on Facebook, York City Mayor Michael Helfrich discussed an arbitrator's decision in the case of Swartz — who was put on unpaid administrative leave after several witnesses said that he reenacted the murder of George Floyd at a party on May 30, 2020.

An internal trial board had previously cleared Swartz, who was 26 years old at the time of the party, of any wrongdoing. The city appealed that ruling to the county's Common Pleas Court. 

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

More:Judge OKs arbitration for York City Officer Clayton Swartz, who remains on unpaid leave

"(The arbitrator's) decision was that we were to return Officer Swartz to work," Helfrich said. "However, there are two parallel legal tracks going on right now, both in the Court of Common Pleas and the arbitrator. So the one decision has come down, and we’re reviewing that decision, but there’s also this pending action in the Court of Common Pleas, and there appears to be a conflict between the opinions of these two legal bodies."

York City Mayor Michael Helfrich

Helfrich said the arbitrator's decision is "not necessarily the final answer," and the city will wait to hear what the court decides. 

"We’re going to continue on and watch as this all plays out, and we’re looking to guidance from the court to determine what action to take with the arbitrator’s decision," he said. "We’re going to continue to get this information heard, get the facts heard and have a final decision that’s agreed upon by the courts and the arbitrators."

Swartz's attorney, Ed Paskey, did not immediately return a request for comment Monday afternoon. 

Background: Three people — Marley Dahlheimer, of Spring Garden Township; India Maldonado, of Spring Garden Township; and Lexxus Brown, of York City — said that Swartz put his knee on the neck of a man lying on a couch, in imitation of Floyd's killing, and made comments mocking the incident.

Floyd's death at the hands of now-former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin sparked worldwide protests, and Chauvin was sentenced to 22½ years in prison in June. 

Swartz and the police department's union, the Fraternal Order of Police, refuted the allegations during an internal investigation into the incident.

Christopher Owens, the man who Swartz allegedly pressed his knee against, was 48 at the time of the party. Owens previously told police and The York Dispatch that he made the comment "I can't breathe" while on the couch and that Swartz did nothing but chuckle to placate him. 

None of the three accusers were called to testify at a police trial board hearing in August 2020. The board found Swartz not guilty on all three departmental violations brought against him: truthfulness, use of alcohol off duty and unbecoming conduct. 

Since then, the city appealed the trial board's "not guilty" rulings to the county's Common Pleas Court. There's a hearing in that case scheduled for Aug. 3. 

The FOP has disputed the city's appeal, arguing that Swartz should have been reinstated after the "not guilty" findings. 

Arbitrator's analysis: In a written opinion, the arbitrator — Harrisburg attorney Thomas P. Leonard — said the collective bargaining agreement between the city and the FOP specifically states all decisions by the trial board are "final and binding."

"For the city to refuse to follow the trial board's findings ignores this clear language that the parties have bargained," Leonard wrote. "The FOP has made a persuasive argument for finding the city violated (the collective bargaining agreement) when it refused to accept as final and binding both decisions of the trial board finding Clayton Swartz not guilty when (the city) refused to reinstate him."

Helfrich previously said the city can appeal the trial board's decision, under Pennsylvania law. County Common Pleas Judge Kathleen J. Prendergast already ruled that York City is allowed to appeal to the county's Common Pleas Court. 

"The Commonwealth Court has held that decisions of police disciplinary trial boards are appealable to the Court of Common Pleas," Prendergast previously wrote. 

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

Leonard wrote that the city must reinstate Swartz and give him lost wages and any other benefits. Leonard will remain as arbitrator for 60 more days to resolve any disputes that could arise from his decision, he wrote.