ONLY ON CLIFFVIEW PILOT
: The state Supreme Court has ruled that a Hillsdale police officer who pulled his gun on a small group of disruptive kids in a playground deserved to be fired.
“Officer [Frederic] Vavosa’s misconduct as a police officer involved public safety and caused a present and future risk of harm to ordinary citizens,” the state’s highest court wrote in its decision.
“Under the totality of the circumstances, termination from employment was the appropriate remedy.”
Vavosa was just beginning his duty tour on June 20, 2008, the last day of school, when a fight broke out on the basketball court of the George White School after an early dismissal.
Seeing him coming, car lights flashing and siren blaring, the seven male students immediately stopped the fight and stood around, the Supremes said.
“He exited his vehicle and began yelling to the children to get down on the ground,” the judges noted. As shown on a video of the incident taken from Vavosa’s car, “the children immediately obeyed his command, dropping to the ground and lying on their stomachs,” the decision says. “At the same time that he was yelling, Officer Vavosa unholstered his gun.”
Some children and parents said Vavosa held the gun with two hands pointing it toward the children first and then toward the ground. “They also state that he threatened to mace them, tackle and fight them, should they disobey his instructions,” the judges wrote.
“Officer Vavosa initially stated that his gun was down at his side. Later he stated that it was across his abdomen. In his hearing testimony, Officer Vavosa stated that when he unholstered his gun he held it in one hand, near his abdomen, at a forty-five degree angle pointed towards the ground, said the judges, who noted that it is a position “not recognized or taught to police officers.”
As a backup officer testified: “The children appeared scared and upset.”
Their parents were even angrier when they found out.
Vavosa, in turn, claimed that he did it for the safety of the children involved and to gain control over the scene.
Following the recommendation of a hearing officer, borough officials fired Vavosa on Jan. 14, 2009.
During subsequent hearings –which led to victories first in Superior Court and then at the appeals level — the borough cited other incidents, including one in which Vavosa got into a fight at a Seaside Heights bar with some of the bouncers. Local police came, Vavosa didn’t have his creds with him, and so he called his own headquarters and told a dispatcher he’d been pulled over driving and didn’t have his ID with him.
Vavosa later admitted he lied to “prevent rumors.” A friend had given him a ride, so he didn’t even have his car that night.
Among other violations of departmental policy, the borough said he’d been either counseledng or reprimanded in writing for using profanity, failing to show up for a scheduled training session at the Police Academy, leaving his post early, and failing to radio in traffic stops.
“In addition there was an incident in which Officer Vavosa allegedly misused the public address system on his patrol vehicle,” the Supremes wrote. “He did this to contact a police dispatcher who he observed in another vehicle in order to speak to her concerning a non-departmental matter.”
In the George White School incident, Vavosa claimed he was following state guidlines for the use of force. He also said he should have continued on a path of “progressive discipline” rather than be fired.
However, the Supremes noted that the officer “never saw a weapon, nor did he frisk anyone looking for a weapon. [He] never told other officers about any concerns he had that a weapon might have been involved in the fight.
“Based on these findings the Court determines that there was a violation of the Attorney General Guidelines. The Court further finds that the circumstances were such that they did not create a reasonable belief that it would be necessary to use a firearm in order to establish control in a potentially dangerous situation.
“The Court does not find Officer Vavosa’s explanation as to why he unholstered his gun to be credible.”
“Acts that subvert good order and discipline in the police department constitute conduct so unbecoming a police officer as to warrant dismissal,” the justices wrote.
“Officer Vavosa exhibited bad judgment by unholstering his gun. It presented a dangerous action clearly demonstrating a severe breach of judgment,” they said.
“The cold facts show that Officer Vavosa unholstered his gun to stop a fight among twelve to thirteen year old children. Additionally, if some of the accounts of the incident are to be believed he may have pointed the gun, towards the children. Clearly, these actions displayed severe misconduct which involved risk of harm.
“The use of his weapon was so egregious that notwithstanding the lack of prior significant disciplinary actions by this relatively new employee, the decision to terminate Officer Vavosa’s employment was appropriate.”
Click here to sign up for Daily Voice's free daily emails and news alerts.