Flight plans 

Last June, Airport Police Corporal Russell Martin went to his superior, Lieutenant John Gruchacz, urgently requesting that he be given a different partner. Five-and-a-half months later, the department gave him the boot.

The decision by Chief Ron Bruner to terminate Martin exposed some emotional wounds that have been mounting within San Antonio’s Airport Police Department. Martin quickly filed an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint, one of three pending cases by former Airport Police officers against the department. On Friday, February 20, Martin’s case reached the city’s Municipal Civil Service Commission, which recommended (in a 2-1 vote) that Martin be reinstated. City Manager Sheryl Sculley must now decide whether or not to accept the commission’s verdict.

Sources say problems have been festering with the Airport Police in recent years, but the recriminations bubbled to the surface last June when Martin learned that he had been teamed with Sergeant Orlando Battles as part of a rotating-partner plan. From the beginning, the partnership looked to be problematic.

Four months earlier, Martin had blown the whistle on Battles over two incidents in which the sergeant falsified time sheets by failing to accurately note when he’d been late to work, and another incident in which Battles left work early and failed to submit a “leave notice.” The actual discrepancies on Battles’ time sheets were relatively small, but Martin contended that it was part of a pattern of dishonesty from Battles and amounted to “theft of city funds.” Battles received a fairly minor five-day suspension.

The whistleblowing incident inflamed what was already an uncomfortable working atmosphere between the two officers. Battles had previously beaten out Martin for a promotion to sergeant, and he would ultimately argue that Martin’s whistleblowing was motivated more by professional jealousy than personal ethics.

In a May 20 interview with Internal Affairs Coordinator Richard Griffin, Battles said: “As I have heard from others, Cpl. Martin has expressed it to everyone else but me of his disappointment that I had been promoted over him. But despite Cpl. Martin’s negative attitude about it, I have tried to reach out and establish ties with him as another supervisor.”

Battles showed no contrition over taking liberties with his time sheet, explaining that he “sometimes had to modify my work schedule” to attend a required City of San Antonio patrol-supervisors training course.

Even before the time-sheet controversy, Battles carried considerable personal baggage. In 1996, the department handed him a one-day suspension for twice failing to respond to a call regarding a disturbance at a Dollar Rent-a-Car counter. In a report on the incident, Sgt. Abel Mireles determined that Battles lied when he told the sergeant that radio dispatch had ultimately informed him that he didn’t need to go to the scene.

A more disturbing incident occurred on September 13, 2003, when SAPD responded to a 911 call from a woman who reported that an enraged Battles — who lived at the same apartment complex — had tried to break into her apartment. Battles was arrested for public intoxication. In a remarkably lenient decision, given the 911 caller’s accusations of violent behavior by Battles, then-Airport Police Chief Joe Hamilton gave him a one-day suspension from the force.

In addition to his spotty record, sources say Battles had trouble winning the confidence of the officers he supervised.

“Battles had a lot of problems when he first made sergeant,” says one source, who spoke to the Current on the condition of anonymity. “He started trying to boss everybody around, instead of letting them do their job — the whole authoritarian thing.

“He’s still learning. He skipped over corporal and was promoted straight to sergeant and he probably should have gone through corporal rank first.”

Internal Affairs received the Battles time-sheet case on June 13, and four days later, Gruchacz assigned Martin to work with Battles. If the lieutenant wanted to punish Martin for blowing the whistle on a co-worker, he couldn’t have found a more perfect approach.

After learning that he’d been assigned to team with Battles, Martin walked into the office of Lieutenant Gruchacz to plead for a different partner. By this point, Martin had already annoyed Gruchacz with a testy, at-times sarcastic March 1 email (blind-copied to at least five other officers) complaining about job-performance criticisms that Gruchacz had made about Martin at a supervisor’s meeting. Given the bad blood between the two officers, it’s little wonder that the conversation in Gruchacz’s office went awry.

Gruchacz later reported that Martin said he hated Battles and warned that there could be “fisticuffs or shooting” if he and Battles were forced to work together. In a June 19 written report to Gruchacz (at Gruchacz’s request), Martin attempted to explain himself: “My meeting was to prevent a possible problem before it has a chance to happen. No more than that — fisticuffs or shooting was used as a ‘shock’ statement to show the worst possible scenario, nothing more. It is not more true than thinking about sex causes your arrest for rape.”

Martin’s supporters in this case insist that his warning to Gruchacz was not intended as a threat, but an expression of concern that he’d be on the receiving end of violence.

Martin and Battles were not paired up, and the issue seemed to be history until September 29, 2008, when Chief Bruner released a memorandum recommending Martin’s firing. Two months later, Interim Aviation Director Michael Sawaya made Martin’s termination official.

From the beginning, Martin built his case on two key points: That his warning to Gruchacz had been wildly misinterpreted, and that the department’s willingness to let months pass before firing him made their allegations look dubious.

At least one source saw the firing as an example of Gruchacz looking for an excuse to dump someone he disliked, and manufacturing a rationale for Bruner. Their detractors say that Bruner and Gruchacz, both veterans of the SAPD, take superior attitudes toward veterans of the Airport Police Department, and those attitudes color their actions.

“Chief Bruner and Lieutenant John Gruchacz wanted to change things when they came in,” says Michael Gonzales, a retired Airport Police officer who ran the department’s K-9 unit. “Their line of thinking was, ‘We’re former PD. We know what we’re doing. You guys, as airport police officers, don’t know what you’re doing.’”

Gonzales has filed his own EEO complaint against the Airport Police, contending that he ran the K-9 bomb-detection unit since its inception in 2002, but that Bruner handed the unit to a less experienced officer four years later. Gonzales says that Bruner discriminated against him, arguing that the chief favors Anglos with a background at SAPD.

If Bruner showed more sympathy toward Battles than Martin in their dispute, it’s worth noting that he, like Battles, has some strange misconduct in his background. In 1992, he was demoted at SAPD for submitting a false police report stating that his son had died, telling a detective that he had cancer when he did not, and providing that detectice with a phony divorce decree.

It’s hard to conceive of a system of justice by which Bruner and Battles would be able to ride out their bad behavior and thrive in their law-enforcement careers while Martin was forced to give up his job, but that’s exactly what’s happened.

While Bruner and Gruchacz attempted to depict Martin as unstable, the case looks suspiciously like an example of a whistleblower being punished for exposing misconduct. If Martin’s March email to Gruchacz constituted a serious violation of department policy, why wasn’t Martin punished at the time? And if his June conversation with Gruchacz about Battles demonstrated a violent, irrational streak, why did Bruner continue to let such a man patrol the airport for the next several months with a gun on his hip? Either Bruner dealt Martin an overly severe punishment by firing him, or he endangered the lives of thousands of civilians by allowing him to stay on the force until December.

It was an inconsistency that the Airport Police could never fully reconcile during the Civil Service Commission hearing, and it obviously gnawed at the commissioners. Shortly before their vote, Commissioner Ronald Martin assessed the case this way: “If the department was concerned about violence in the workplace, there is no justification for the six-month delay in handling this matter. The comments `from Russell Martin` were inappropriate, but were not a threat to any individual.”

The commissioner moved that Martin be reinstated, with an eight-day suspension: five days for his comments about Battles, and three days for his email to Gruchacz. The commission voted 2-1 in favor of Martin’s reinstatement (with Robert Mayhew the dissenting vote), and suggested to Martin that if he gains reinstatement, he should tone down his rhetoric in the future.

Martin declined to comment on his case. Karl Brehm, his legal representative in the case, would only say, “I think the commission made the right decision.” Chief Bruner and Lieutenant Gruchacz did not respond to the Current’s interview requests.

Sculley is expected to make a decision on Martin’s case in the next few weeks.

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