Arbitrator: Mission shouldn't have fired cop for contacting 'Anonymous' Facebook page
Nearly four months after the Mission Police Department fired her for spreading a rumor about former Mayor Norberto “Beto” Salinas, a policewoman won her appeal today.
Officer Veronica Cedillo sent a
private Facebook message claiming that Salinas was “wasted/drunk” when
he crashed a truck. Chief Robert Dominguez fired her on June 18.
After reviewing the facts, an arbitrator reduced her punishment to a 10-day suspension.
“The City has established the truth of
some of the charges against Officer Cedillo arising out of her May 5,
2018 Facebook Messenger message,” according to the arbitration opinion.
“However, her indefinite suspension is excessive under the
circumstances of her good-faith exercise of her First Amendment Rights
and her otherwise exemplary work record.”
Dominguez couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.
The controversy started at 3:32 a.m. on May 5, when police responded to a car crash on the 3000 block of North Glasscock Road.
Officers found Salinas behind the wheel.
Salinas didn’t show any signs of
intoxication, according to the sergeant and the patrolman who conducted a
cursory investigation of the crash. They didn’t ask him to perform a
standard field sobriety test or provide a breath sample.
Minutes after the mayor left, however,
the patrolman noticed a beer can nearby. Rumors about the crash
rocketed through the department.
Officers started speculating that Salinas had been drinking alcohol.
Cedillo heard about the crash and sent
a message to the Anonymous RGV page on Facebook, which is part of a
constellation of accounts that shares rumors.
“Well, I just don’t wanna get in
trouble, but just so ya’ll know … the current mayor, Beto Salinas was
wasted/drunk and crashed inside the city limits … single vehicle
accident at about 3am this morning,” Cedillo wrote. “However, it is
unknown if he called the Chief of Police directly & had the Sgt.
take care of it. So, he was allowed to call someone to go pick him up
& was not charged/arrested for DWI. He was already picked up, by the
time the wrecker arrived at the scene. The officer only did an accident
report … which is totally unfair/wrong!!”
Salinas failed to win a majority of the vote in May and lost a runoff election in June.
Rumors about Salinas drinking and driving circulated for years.
During the arbitration hearing, two
officers said they stopped Salinas for traffic infractions and smelled
alcohol on him. In an interview, Salinas called them liars and insisted
he doesn’t drink.
Cedillo said the rumors about prior incidents convinced her to contact the Anonymous RGV page on Facebook.
A page administrator assured Cedillo
she would remain anonymous. It remains unclear how a copy about her
message reached the city.
Cedillo based her Facebook message on
conversations with fellow officers and didn’t abuse her access to police
department records, according to the opinion released today by
arbitrator Richard R. Brann of Houston.
“While MPD suffered some harm to its
reputation, the public interest in knowing about this subject matter is
great. Moreover, it is the right of a citizen-employee to make that
happen,” according to the arbitration opinion. “Officer Cedillo’s
attempted anonymous allegation was aimed primarily at what she perceived
as favoritism towards the Mayor and what she sincerely believed was the
need for that favoritism to be investigated by a third party.
Accordingly, the Hearing Examiner finds that the public interest and
related rights outweigh the harm to MPD.”
The arbitrator also admonished Cedillo for jumping to conclusions.
“Officer Cedillo could have
accomplished the same result in the public interest without exaggerating
the breadth of her knowledge,” according to the arbitration opinion.
“Importantly, it is reasonable to expect an experienced police officer
to be more disciplined and precise in making a report, especially one of
Mission must pay Cedillo for the time she spent off the job, minus the 10-day suspension.
Attorney David Willis, who represented Cedillo, welcomed the decision.
“Veronica Cedillo is a dedicated and
brave member of the Mission Police Department, a true asset to the City
of Mission,” Willis said in a statement. “The Mission PD is manned by
the finest of men and women and is a well-run, professional organization
lead by an upright and compassionate chief, Robert Dominguez. Although
we disagreed with the Chief’s decision to indefinitely suspend her
employment, and were confident that it would be overturned, the Chief’s
dedication to a fair internal affairs investigation process must be
“On Veronica Cedillo’s behalf, I want
to express our sincere gratitude to the hearing examiner for his
decision to reinstate her and award her back pay. The arbitration award
itself is sound in its legal reasoning and demonstrates a just and
deliberate review of the evidence presented in her appeal hearing,”
Willis said in the statement. “Veronica Cedillo looks forward to getting
back on patrol, doing the job she loves, and serving and protecting the
fine people of Mission, Texas.”