Family of man who died after Arlington jail struggle wanted faster discipline of officers

The proposed discipline of detention officers involved in the jail death of an Arlington man should have come sooner, a family member said Tuesday.

The Arlington Police Department announced Monday night the proposed firings of three detention officers and a five-day suspension for one jail sergeant, nearly nine months after Jonathan Paul died following a struggle with officers at the city jail.

“In hindsight, it’s a little late for that,” said Paul’s uncle, Marvin Phillip. “These guys were still working and continued to work while they were being investigated from the beginning.”

None of the 10 officers involved was placed on administrative leave during the investigation. Five were exonerated, while one, Steve Schmidt, retired in October.

Phillip said he and other family members were scheduled to meet with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office Tuesday afternoon to discuss “answers to some questions that weren’t answered during the grand jury process.”

Only Schmidt, the lead detention officer on duty when Paul was in custody, and detention officer Pedro Medina are facing criminal charges — they were indicted by a Tarrant County grand jury last month on one count each of criminally negligent homicide.

Asked whether Schmidt would receive retirement benefits, police spokesman Lt. Chris Cook said benefits are determined by the Texas Municipal Retirement System.

Cook said employees who are eligible to resign or retire “may do so at any time. The city does not rush to judgment on pending personnel matters and therefore would not prohibit an eligible employee from exercising any benefits afforded to them as a result of their employment.”

Medina and detention officers Wes Allen and Matt Fisher received termination notices Monday. Sgt. Frank Vacante, the jail sergeant on duty during the incident, received the suspension notice.

The punished officers were all given two days to respond. They can formally appeal the decision to Police Chief Will Johnson within 10 days.

Paul died March 13, four days after he was arrested on outstanding warrants by Arlington officers who were responding to a disturbance call, according to police reports. Paul was taken to the Arlington Jail.

On March 10, he struggled with with jailers and collapsed in his cell.

Physical restraints and the use of pepper spray played a significant role in Paul’s death, according to an autopsy report released in June by the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office. The autopsy also concluded that jailers followed department protocol.

The Paul family sued the city in federal court in May.

Luis Bartolomei, the family’s attorney, said he had “mixed feelings” as he read through the punishments Monday night. “On one hand, I’m glad that internally they did something,” he said. “However, the fact that they did it after the grand jury came back, it seems disingenuous.”

Bartolomei said “there’s absolutely no reason” why the investigation couldn’t have been concluded sooner.

“I’d be willing to bet their investigation was sitting in the backroom waiting to see what the DA did and what the medical examiner said,” Bartolomei said. “When they saw the grand jury indicted at least two of them, they knew they'd be scrutinized even further.”

Schmidt and Medina were indicted Nov. 23, and the medical examiner’s autopsy report was released in June.

Police would not comment on the length of the investigation.

The department reached out to the family last month to ask if it could release the surveillance video of Paul’s stay at the jail.

“What more tarnish could it be than the way you treated him?” Phillip said of the video. “You took it upon yourself to play doctor. ... That's just an accepted practice to treat people that way?”

When asked if the family was satisfied with the punishments levied against the officers, Phillip said, “Satisfaction is my nephew still living.”

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

Ryan Osborne: 817-390-7684, @RyanOsborneFWST