An investigation into a shooting by a rookie police officer was rushed and incomplete so Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald could fire the officer hours before she earned the right to appeal, the president of the Fort Worth Police Officers Association said Tuesday.
Fort Worth Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald fired Officer Lina Mino on Friday, just seven hours before she would have completed her one-year probationary term, thus stripping her of her right to appeal, Manny Ramirez, the association’s president, said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
Ramirez called the chief’s actions “absolutely unprecedented and out of order.”
“The termination will serve no other purpose than to send a message throughout our police department that hard work and integrity do not outweigh political expediency,” Ramirez said.
Fort Worth attorney Terry Daffron, who is representing Mino, said she also believes the investigation was rushed to prevent Mino’s ability to appeal.
“Why else?” Daffron asked. “If you’re confident in your decision and you have the facts to back it up, you’re not scared of a hearing.”
“I have never in the history of my 25 years doing this seen an investigation rushed this quickly,” she added. “Someone ordered that and it had to have been the chief.”
In a statement emailed to the Star-Telegram Tuesday afternoon, Lt. Brandon O’Neil, a police spokesman, stated the chief terminated the probationary officer for violating the department’s use of force policy.
“Our Police Department considers the use of force, specifically deadly force, a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly,” O’Neil stated.
He said Fort Worth officers know this because of strict policies governing encounters that warrant the use of force and extensive training in these areas.
“We owe it to those we protect and those we serve alongside to ensure when our officers use force they do so within policy, and place an emphasis upon the sanctity of human life,” he stated.
The termination stemmed from Mino discharging her gun during a traffic stop of two men on the afternoon of April 7 in northwest Fort Worth.
According to details provided by Ramirez and Daffron, the driver of the vehicle initially gave Mino false information about his identity, prompting her to call for back up. He finally admitted his true identity and Mino learned that he was wanted on a felony drug warrant.
Daffron said the driver, who was in a jacked-up Jeep that prevented Mino from seeing inside, kept making furtive movements by the center console.
“Everything about this traffic stop was throwing up red flags to her that something wasn’t right,” Daffron said. “Her gut instincts were spot on.”
After confirming the driver was wanted on a felony warrant, Daffron said, Mino ordered him out of the Jeep. Instead, Daffron said, the driver turned the steering wheel toward the officer’s direction, forcing Mino to stumble backward, and began to drive off.
“The driver turned his tires and pulled off quickly, which in the heat of the moment startled officer Mino and she fired a round from her service weapon,” Ramirez said.
Ramirez said the round struck the suspect’s vehicle but did not hit anyone. He said he believed Mino’s discharge of her gun was “accidental.”
After the round was fired, the Jeep stopped again and Mino ordered the men out. The passenger, who also had outstanding warrants, complied but the driver fled on foot, according to Daffron.
Mino ordered the passenger to stay on the ground, then gave chase after the driver, who soon fled into a house occupied by a family.
“The suspect took over the house and ordered the family not to call the police,” Ramirez said. “Luckily, the family was able to escape and the suspects were apprehended after a standoff.”
A search of the suspect’s vehicle revealed a loaded handgun, Ramirez said.
“In any other circumstance, Officer Mino would have been given a commendation for self-initiating a traffic stop that led to the apprehension of a wanted felon and the seizure of an illegal firearm but not in this case,” Ramirez said. “The chief of police determined in five days, after a rushed and incomplete investigation, that Officer Mino’s alleged violation of department policy warranted the termination of her employment.”
Ramirez said the average internal affairs investigation takes more than 90 days to complete and includes an opportunity for the officer’s chain of command to review the findings and give their disciplinary recommendations.
He said no such chain of command of review was done in Mino’s case and called her investigation and termination the quickest he’s ever seen.
“The disciplinary action in this case is not only premature but in my opinion, irresponsible,” Ramirez said. “Were mistakes made? Perhaps. But just like any situation where mistakes are made, the end result matters. No one was hurt. No one was injured. A wanted felony was taken into custody.”
Daffron said Mino was interviewed by Internal Affairs on Wednesday and believes the chief had already made up his mind by then.
“I think when the POA says five days, they’re being generous because by Wednesday, she was told you have a pre-disciplinary meeting with the chief on Friday,” Daffron said.
O’Neil said the officer did not follow Fort Worth policies and the training she received “when she discharged her firearm at a vehicle that slowly moved away from her, although she displayed character when she readily acknowledged that she made a mistake.”
He said while the officer was scheduled to complete her probation the day after her termination, “clearly this incident affected her success in doing so.”
The Police Department’s policy prohibits officers from shooting into vehicles unless the vehicle poses an immediate threat to that officer or someone else, O’Neil said.
Ramirez said the department has had many unintentional or unconventional firearm discharges through the years, even by those in command ranks. Some, he said, received only counseling sessions or written reprimands.
Ramirez said Mino had a stellar reputation for community service and spoke Spanish. He said it costs the department $200,000 to recruit, hire and train a new police officer, calling the chief’s decision to fire her an “irresponsible management of taxpayer resources.”
Ramirez said the police officers association filed a grievance with the chief on Friday morning on Mino’s behalf for mistakes made in the investigation. Before her firing, he also met with the chief to express his concerns over the rushed investigation and said he now plans to ask the chief to reconsider his decision.