ECU officer should not have been fired after melee with racial overtones, court says

East Carolina University in Greenville.
East Carolina University in Greenville. N&O file photo

East Carolina University unjustly fired a campus police sergeant for his response to a St. Patrick’s Day melee that had racial overtones, according to a court ruling.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals on Tuesday upheld an administrative law judge’s decision to put Ralph Whitehurst back on the campus police force at a lower rank.

At issue was whether Whitehurst committed a fireable offense when he failed to file a police report and pursue attackers who, according to the campus department’s procedures, should have been interviewed at the scene.

The incident on March 17, 2016, received widespread attention as a brawl in which an African-American man, Patrick Myrick, was seriously injured in a beating on the ECU campus by a group of white attackers.

The incident started outside a Greenville bar at around 2 a.m. when a verbal altercation escalated into a physical confrontation.

Police said Myrick struck a female in the face, knocking her to the ground. Several of the woman’s friends then assaulted Myrick outside a sandwich shop. They then chased him onto ECU’s campus, assaulting him a second time, police said. A witness said the attackers called Myrick racial slurs during the beating.

Whitehurst, who had worked for the department for 12 years and supervised a shift of eight other officers, was the first officer to arrive to the edge of campus where the melee took place. Several other ECU police officers responded, but by then Whitehurst had handcuffed Myrick, according to court documents and police reports, allowing the others at the scene to walk away.

Surveillance cameras showed that when Whitehurst arrived, the group was holding Myrick down. Myrick suffered serious injuries that required hospitalization.

Since then, six assailants were placed on probation after entering guilty pleas to misdemeanor assault inflicting serious injury. Two of the attackers also were ordered to spend two weekends in jail.

Violated department policies

The case not only raised questions about police misconduct, it also highlighted limits to how officers who work in state campus police departments can be punished.

Bill Koch, ECU associate vice chancellor of environmental health and campus safety, said in a statement Tuesday: “State government employees are held to the same standards of conduct across the board, meaning police officers are not held to higher standards than other state employees. In this case, the law allowed the (administrative law judge) and the court to substitute their judgment for that of ECU and they came to a different conclusion.”

When ECU fired Whitehurst, university officials contended the former sergeant violated several of the campus police department’s policies such as failing to file a police report about the incident and not acting in a supervisory role when he let potential witnesses to a crime leave the scene without being questioned.

In court documents asking the state Court of Appeals to uphold the administrative law judge’s decision, Whitehurst’s attorneys noted that he answered the call alone and did not have the benefit of the surveillance video showing the attackers beating Myrick.

When Whitehurst arrived, his attorney contended, there was no fighting. Myrick had a bloody face, but Whitehurst said Myrick told him he had “been in a fight downtown with a girl” and did not mention that he had been attacked.

“Thinking he had the only suspect in custody, Mr. Whitehurst did not take steps to secure or detain others at the scene,” Whitehurst’s attorney contended in the brief submitted to the appeals court.

According to court documents filed by Whitehurst, the internal grievance panel voted against firing Whitehurst, but ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton overrode that finding and dismissed the officer.

Poor job performance

Administrative Law Judge Donald J. Overby agreed with Whitehurst that he had been improperly fired, but was critical of the officer’s performance.

Overby said he had difficulty with the scenario that Whitehurst put forward.

“Petitioner was specifically responding to a call for an assault on campus, he appears and finds a crowd with people on top of someone who is bleeding, and he does nothing to try to determine anything about the assault for which he originally responded,” Overby wrote in his ruling last year. “And at the time he arrived, he knew absolutely nothing about the fight downtown.”

Overby concluded that Whitehurst’s conduct that night constituted “poor job performance.”

But because Whitehurst had not had any prior written warnings about poor performance, ECU officials erred for firing him. Instead, Overby said Whitehurst deserved to be demoted and ordered that he be placed in a lower rank.

ECU challenged those findings on appeal.

The appeals court panel agreed with Overby, though.

“We do not discount the harm that resulted from Whitehurst’s conduct on the evening of 17 March 2016,” the three-judge appeals court panel stated in its unanimous ruling. “However, ‘just cause’ is a concept ‘embodying notions of equity and fairness’ to the employee. Whitehurst’s conduct must be judged with reference to the facts of which he was aware at the time of his actions. After reviewing the whole record, including the ECU surveillance video footage, we conclude that the severity of Whitehurst’s conduct was substantially mitigated by his misunderstanding of the situation with which he was presented.”

The appeals court panel found that “Whitehurst had no reason to believe that any of the individuals present at the scene were perpetrators of an assault on Myrick. Nevertheless, these individuals were potential witnesses, and Whitehurst made no attempt to prevent them from leaving the scene and did not request that they not leave the scene.”

ECU officials said Tuesday that a date has not been determined for Whitehurst’s return to work. Experience, training and past work performance are to be taken into consideration in determining work assignments for all ECU police officers, the university said.

“Obviously Sergeant Whitehurst is pleased with this ruling,” said Michael Byrne, attorney for Whitehurst.

Byrne said Whitehurst now has the right to retroactive reinstatement with back pay.