Multiple lives were forever changed when an off-duty Orange Police captain decided to use lethal force on a Marine accused of causing a ruckus at a busy auto parts store July 26, 2010. The ramifications of his actions nearly two years later are still not completely realized as the saga continues. This past week, the shooter and the victim’s family were set to converge in a Beaumont court.
Orange Police Captain Robert Arnold was doing some personal shopping at O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store in the heart of the city in late July 2010, teen daughter in tow, when the off-duty law enforcement officer noticed a verbal altercation erupt between a store employee and a customer. Although the employee had called the Orange Police Department to send over a patrol officer, Arnold stepped up and confronted the unruly and dissatisfied patron, a former Marine named James Whitehead. Less than five minutes later, Whitehead was dead in the store’s parking lot and Arnold was holding the gun that took the man’s life.
Then-Orange Police Chief Sam Kittrell headed a lengthy investigation into the incident, issuing a 38-page report of his findings less than four months after the shooting. Included in the pages was a second-by-second breakdown of how the homicide occurred, a list of infractions attributed to the police captain, and an ultimate decision to suspend Arnold indefinitely from his civil duties. Although a grand jury failed to indict Arnold for his actions, Kittrell asserted that “issues considered by the grand jury are generally more narrowly defined and more strictly related to the legality or non-legality of deadly force. My duties and responsibilities require that I consider a broader spectrum in order to determine if rules, regulations, policies and procedures have been followed.”
According to the report filed by the police chief, many infractions were noted in Arnold’s conduct during the altercation that led to the death of a 28-year-old decorated Marine. More than 30 pages in, Kittrell made his determination.
“I respect the decision of the grand jury but I also have to believe that had you responded in a more appropriate manner that the situation would not have gotten to the point where you felt that you had to shoot Whitehead,” Kittrell wrote.
Additionally, the police chief noted, “Based on your length of service with this department, you have a higher rate of use-of-force incidents than anyone else in the department.” In fact, according to Kittrell, Arnold used force at a rate more than seven times that of his coworkers. Kittrell continued by stating, “While reviewing your history within this department, there appears to be a pattern developing where you use force that is questionable.”
Kittrell signed Arnold’s walking papers on Nov. 17, 2010, indefinitely suspending the officer from duty as a peace office in the city of Orange, effectively firing him. In doing so, among his final assertions, Kittrell wrote to Arnold, “Your failure to take actions appropriate for the situation at hand brought discredit upon the department, damaged the reputation of the department, and damaged public confidence in the Orange Police Department.”
In the end, however, the 38-page separation letter given to Arnold wasn’t going to be the last word between the disgraced officer and the Orange Police Department. Nor would it be the last Arnold would hear of legal proceedings related to the 2010 shooting.
Exactly one year after the shooting, Arnold was ordered put back on the city of Orange payroll by fact finder Leroy Bartman, who presided over arbitration between Arnold and the city. It was a decision the city of Orange is currently appealing.
According to testimony presented by city of Orange attorney John Cash Smith during a civil hearing, the lawyer stated, “We presented a very clear and convincing case that Chief Kittrell’s decision to terminate Robert Arnold was entirely justified.
“This whole incident is a human tragedy. A 28-year-old man was deprived of the rest of his life, a 3-year-old daughter doesn’t have a father, two parents have lost their son, and a police officer’s career has been ruined – all because of an incredible lapse of judgment in less than four minutes of time.”
Arnold also has filed an EEOC complaint against the city of Orange alleging that he is the victim of racial discrimination. That case is pending.
A federal lawsuit filed against Arnold by the victim’s survivors was set to be heard this past week in Judge Thad Heartfield’s district court, with an April 16 preliminary trial docket date, which has been postponed until after a May hearing. The lawsuit, filed in the beginning of 2011, alleges Arnold deprived Whitehead of his civil rights.
Discovery offered along with a plaintiff motion asserts that Arnold was prohibited from even carrying a firearm due to misdemeanor family violence convictions. According to evidence offered to the court, Arnold’s wife gave statements in 2004 alleging her husband choked her, and struck her in the face causing injury. Arnold’s wife is also reported as stating for the record, “I do not believe that my children are safe in his presence when he engages in these outbursts of anger and uncontrolled temper.”
Furthermore, the case file asserts, Arnold broke the nose of a woman in 2007 “without provocation,” punched a minor girl in the face in 2009, and beat a 17-year-old boy in the head with a metal flashlight for an ordinance infraction.
Due to what the plaintiffs believe to be Arnold’s willful violation of Whitehead’s civil rights, the suit seeks damages of pecuniary loss, loss of companionship and mental anguish.
In defense, Arnold’s legal team offers up that the veteran officer only acted in response to Whitehead’s conduct. Arnold’s defense also states that the plaintiff could have minimized damages “by obtaining adequate mental health treatment for themselves and James Whitehead, but they failed to do so.”In addition to assertions that the plaintiffs’ case fails to establish a wrongful death, the defense is also bringing into question the paternity of Whitehead’s only child to quell any claim made on behalf of the toddler. Arnold also denies the allegations of past family violence.Scheduling for the civil trial will commence after a May 17 hearing.
Jennifer Johnson can be reached at (409) 832-1400, ext. 231, or by e-mail at jennifer [at] theexaminer [dot] com.