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Posted May 12, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Excessive force cited as reason for officer's dismissal

By Joe Beck

Former Strasburg police officer Aaron H. Lewis lost his job over accusations that he used excessive force against a suspect in a drug case, falsified records and violated safety rules without a threat to life, according to documents in Shenandoah County Circuit Court.

The documents were filed in a lawsuit Lewis filed against Police Chief Tim Sutherly and the town. Lewis argued the town's failure to follow its own grievance procedures for employees nullified his firing, but Circuit Judge Dennis L. Hupp upheld the town's actions in a recent ruling.

The documents show Lewis was accused of hitting two suspects during execution of a search warrant on Dec. 18, 2009 at a house on Washington Street.

Sutherly told Lewis he was fired in a letter dated Jan. 14, 2010. The letter cites a complaint Sutherly received from a 17-year old girl and her parents stating that an unknown Strasburg police officer, later identified as Lewis, hit her in the face with a flashlight.

Walter Ngome, described in the letter as a friend of the girl's, was also hit in the head while he was lying on the floor, according to the letter.

"Although you deny the allegations, the evidence in this case is overwhelmingly against you in all three allegations," Sutherly told Lewis in the letter.

Lt. Jason Ford of the Strasburg police testified before a three-member panel reviewing the firing that he found the girl with a small scrape on her nose and a small nosebleed while the search warrant was being executed.

Ford, whose comments appear in a transcript of the panel's grievance hearing, stated that the girl refused medical attention at the scene.

A memo from the panel said its members decided, 2-1, that the town had followed proper procedures in firing Lewis. But the panel also rejected the accusation of excessive force against Ngome, calling the evidence not "sufficient to determine a charge" and adding that the Ngome "did not file a complaint or testify on his behalf."

The panel also urged that Lewis be "considered for voluntary resignation pending discipline" instead of being fired.

"This would afford Mr. Lewis the opportunity to be employed and again participate in the Virginia Retirement System if he chooses to do so," the memo states.

Sutherly said Friday he remained as convinced as ever that he made the right decision in firing Lewis more than four years ago.

"I would say we were more than justified in termination, and I would stand by our grounds for termination as a whole," Sutherly said.

The termination letter Sutherly wrote cites statements from several officers who either said they saw Lewis hit the female victim or "heard you admit to the action and also admit to hitting Walter Ngome during the course of the search warrant."

Lewis's attorney, William M. Wittman of Leesburg contested the firing on grounds that the grievance panel proceedings did not allow him to subpoena witnesses on behalf of Lewis.

"Material witnesses did not appear for the hearing, and the panel did not have the benefit of material evidence, but erroneously based their decision on constitutionally protected evidence without all the evidence being presented to the panel," Wittman wrote in a court document.

Wittman also wrote that Sutherly used an overly broad and confusing definition of excessive use of force as a reason for firing Lewis.

Lewis was chosen Virginia Police Officer in 1996 by the Virginia Coalition of Police and also received two awards for valor, according court documents.

Wittman said Friday Lewis is attending school with the goal of finding a job outside of law enforcement.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com

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