Lawrence officials made the right decision last week in refusing to reinstate a police officer fired after being accused of sexually assaulting children.
The Lawrence Patrolmen’s Association filed a grievance seeking the return of Officer Carlos Gonzalez to his $60,000 per year job. The union argued that after his reinstatement, Gonzalez should be suspended without pay until the charges against him are heard.
In December, Gonzalez was charged with the rape of a girl under age 12 in Haines City, Fla., while he was there earlier that year on vacation. In June, Gonzalez, 48, was indicted in New Hampshire on charges he sexually assaulted a girl under age 13 in 1992 and 1993.
Gonzalez is being held in a Florida jail on $150,000 bond.
Despite the seriousness of the charges, the union argued that suspending Gonzalez without pay was more appropriate as he has not yet been convicted of any crime.
“These are crimes that would make any police officer blush,” union lawyer Matthew Dwyer said. “He’s been indicted for serious crimes. We’re not happy about that. We hope he didn’t do those things. But we don’t know.”
“My position is clear,” union President Scott Andrews told reporter Keith Eddings. “You’re innocent until proven guilty. That’s a constitutional right. That’s fundamental.”
Lawrence Personnel Director Frank Bonet made the right decision in denying the grievance.
Our legal system requires prosecutors to prove Gonzalez is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt before the state can mete out a punishment to him. But concerning his status as a employee of the city of Lawrence, Gonzalez enjoys no such protection.
After a termination hearing in June, hearing officer Peter McQuillan ruled that the city had just cause in firing Gonzalez for conduct unbecoming a police officer, noting that Gonzalez is facing “serious criminal charges of moral turpitude in Florida and New Hampshire involving two separate alleged victims who are minors.”
Gonzalez has a right to a fair trial. But he has no unconditional right to a job in which he is handed a gun and a badge and told to uphold the law.
Dwyer, the union lawyer, did make a good point when he asked why Gonzalez was terminated while two other police officers still have their jobs despite being indicted for serious crimes. Mayor William Lantigua, who alone holds the power to hire and fire police officers, has kept Deputy Chief Melix Bonilla and Officer P.J. Lopez on the payroll for months while they await trial.
Bonilla has collected his $140,000 per year pay while under indictment on five counts of extortion, fraud and conspiracy for his alleged involvement in a swap of city-owned vehicles with Lawrence car dealer Bernardo Pena, a Lantigua friend and campaign supporter.
Lopez is still being paid his $60,000 per year, despite being indicted in September on charges that he lied to a federal agent and made arrangements with a local tow company to have cars he ticketed towed by the company in exchange for a stream of benefits.
Dwyer said he finds it “disconcerting” that Gonzalez was fired while Bonilla and Lopez have been suspended with pay. So do we.
After several months of prodding, Lantigua did the right thing in firing Gonzalez. We’re still waiting for him to do the same with Bonilla and Lopez.