A neutral arbitrator has ruled that Edinburg police chief Cesar Torres reassigned two police officers from investigative positions to patrol in retaliation for opposing a proposal he made to hire an assistant chief from outside of the department.

Richard R. Brann, who oversaw a five-day mediation in December between the city of Edinburg and officers Arnaldo Ysquierdo and Eric Salazar, issued his ruling Wednesday, determining that the reassignments were a violation of the union’s Meet and Confer Agreement, which prohibits discrimination against officers for their membership, or activity, with a union.

“To remedy this violation, the City must now reassign Eric Salazar and Arnaldo Ysquierdo to the positions that each held in CID on August 8, 2019 and grant them any back pay and benefits they have lost from August 8, 2019, until the time of their reassignment,” Brann wrote in the ruling.

In a statement, the city of Edinburg said it does not comment on personnel issues but it has reviewed the order and is complying with it.

The Edinburg United Police Officers Association, or EUPOA, sued the city last year on behalf of Ysquierdo and Salazar and secured a court order from U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez forcing the city to arbitrate the officers’ grievances, which the city had refused to do.

David Willis, the EUPOA attorney, said the case makes it crystal clear why police officers must be protected by Civil Service and why they must have the ability to collectively negotiate the terms and working conditions of their employment.

“The arbitrator heard five (5) days of testimony and what was said there was beyond shocking. The Chief of the Edinburg Police Department arrested, fired, disciplined, and targeted members of the Edinburg United Police Officers Association because they, as a union, resisted his desire to enforce the law against ‘V.I.P.s’ differently than how it is enforced against the average citizen of Edinburg,” Willis said in a statement.

The case showed that Torres brought reassignments and disciplinary actions against six police officers who opposed his proposal for lateral hires at a February 2019 union meeting, including ordering an Internal Affairs investigation against former union vice president Armando Celedon, who was eventually charged, arrested and fired.

A Hidalgo County grand jury no-billed Celedon on charges of official oppression and tampering with government records and he was reinstated and received back pay. He is currently the president of the union.

“The members of Edinburg United stood up to the Chief and as a result were persecuted for over a year and suffered severe consequences. But because they were protected by their union and Civil Service, the members of Edinburg United could risk their jobs to do what is right. Make no mistake, those who want to do away with Civil Service, police unions, and ‘collective bargaining’ are only clearing the way for favoritism for the politically connected,” Willis said in a statement.

In fact, Brann, the arbitrator, makes note of politics when describing how testimony at the mediation revealed that Juan “Jay” Hernandez, who was appointed to assistant chief from patrol, without any management experience and without Torres consulting anyone, allegedly bragged about his connections to Edinburg Mayor Richard Molina.

Several witnesses testified that Hernandez previously boasted that he would be appointed assistant chief because he has a close personal relationship with Molina and was good friends with him in high school. Hernandez testified that he wasn’t really serious when he made those comments.

“Many police officers who testified expressed some degree of disappointment at the Chief’s selection of Hernandez as Assistant Chief. Many thought it was a bad idea, some describing it as ‘unbelievable’ and a ‘big mistake,'” Brann wrote in the ruling.

In fact, after Hernandez was appointed to the position, the EUPOA board voted to authorize a report to the Texas Rangers of alleged impropriety on Hernandez’s behalf regarding his purchase of Jennifer Lopez concert tickets with the union’s credit card.

Hernandez was never charged in the case and Torres eventually removed him from the position of assistant chief.

These acts of discrimination for union activity began after the February 2019 EUPOA meeting where Torres made his proposal for lateral hires, about a month after he officially took the job as chief.

“At the February 19, 2019, meeting, several EUPOA members, including Lieutenant Oscar Trevino, Sgt. Sandra Tapia, Sgt. Patricia Champion, Sgt. Manuel Alvarez, and EUPOA’s Vice President at the time, Armando Celedon, expressed their opposition to the Chief’s proposal. EUPOA’s President at the time, Juan “Jay” Hernandez, expressed his agreement with the Chief’s proposal, as did several members of the EUPOA Board, including Gabriel Vela, Carlos Romero, Aricela Pena, and Jaime Urias. Witnesses at the hearing all described the February 19 meeting as ‘heated,’ ‘lively,’ and sometimes ‘ugly,'” Brann wrote in his ruling.

Later that year, in August, those officers who supported Torres’ proposal, including two trustees who resigned over the investigation into Hernandez, created a new union, the Edinburg Police Organization, or EPO.

EUPOA is a Texas Municipal Police Association, or TMPA, union while the EPO is a Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, or CLEAT union.

“According to the testimony of the City’s witness, Gabriel Vela, the Vice President of EPO, he believed that EUPOA ‘was not really working with Chief Torres . . . The [EUPAO] were working against them.’ Some officers joined the new organization and many officers maintained a dual membership in both EUPOA and EPO. The two unions remain rivals for the support of EPD officers,” Brann wrote.

The ruling also notes that Hernandez routinely attended the CLEAT meetings.

The heart of this dispute is the Meet and Confer Agreement.

Salazar and Ysquierdo complained they were reassigned for union activity, which resulted in a loss of pay, favorable working hours, prestige from being investigators and the ability to wear plain clothes at work while the city argued Torres has the authority to reassign officers at will and that Ysquierdo and Salazar had poor work performance.

Torres does have that authority, but the Meet and Confer Agreement prohibits him from reassigning officers for union activity.

“Context matters. From context comes a better understanding of all events,” Brann wrote in explaining his analysis of the case and his decision.

Brann said the case would be far easier if Salazar and Ysquierdo’s reassignments were isolated or if the stated reasons for the reassignments was objectively clear and compelling.

“Unfortunately, neither is the case,” he wrote.

Both men were reassigned on Aug. 8, 2019 — the same month the EPO was created.

Salazar had been elected secretary of the EUPOA just two days before his reassignment and Ysquierdo was elected as a trustee to the EUPOA two days after his reassignment.

In the months prior, Torres had reassigned four other Criminal Investigation Division investigators to patrol, fired Celedon after he was arrested by Edinburg police and suspended a lieutenant over alleged tardiness.

“All of these employees were officers or members of EUPOA and all of them had been outspoken opponents of Chief Torres’ proposed amendment of the MCA at the Febraury 19, 2019 EUPOA meeting. There was considerable testimony that some (indeed, many) EPD police officers had become increasingly concerned with adverse action from Chief Torres because of their aligning themselves with the EUPOA,” Brann wrote.

Salazar even testified that EUPOA was having difficulty finding people for the board because of the adverse actions.

“When Salazar was elected EUPOA Secretary on August 6, 2019, followed shortly by Chief Torres’ terse email reassigning both men from CID to Patrol, one can understand why they might reasonably have thought that their activities in behalf of or membership in EUPOA must have motivated their reassignments — just as they (and others) thought it had with Sgt. Alvarez, Sgt. Champion, Lt. Trevino, Celedon, Rodriguez, and Sgt. Tapia,” Brann’s ruling stated.

During the December mediation, Torres had testified that he reassigned Ysquierdo and Salazar from CID because he did not believe they were being productive.

According to the city, Chief Torres’ decision to reassign Salazar and Ysquierdo from CID to Patrol was based on Salazar’s and Ysquierdo’s poor work performance in CID. The city argues that it was Salazar’s and Ysquierdo’s work performance, not their activities on behalf of EUPOA, that motivated Chief Torres’ decision to reassign them from CID to Patrol,” according to the ruling.

Torres had testified that he was frustrated because every time he walked through CID he saw them in a lieutenant’s office and was concerned about the division’s large case load.

Brann, however, wrote that his inference of discrimination is also supported by undisputed evidence that Torres, or their supervisors, ever told either of them that their work performance needed improvement.

“In fact, both testified that the opposite was true. Both had received supervisory accolades and pats on the back for the work they had been doing in CID,” Brann said.

Brann said he had difficulty accepting Torres’ explanation for the reassignments at face value because there is a complete lack of corroboration for his explanation.

“Indeed, not a single witness with direct knowledge of Ysquierdo’s and Salazar’s work performance in CID supported the Chief’s claim that they were poor performers or doing anything wrong at all,” Brann wrote.

In fact, multiple supervisors testified that both officers had no performance issues and even described them as “top-notch investigators.”

“It is difficult to believe that these two CID sergeants and four CID Lieutenants can all be completely wrong about their independent, but consistent, favorable evaluations of the work performance of Salazar and Ysqueirdo,” Brann said. “These supervisors had worked with Salazar and Ysquierdo for many years. Chief Torres had not. Indeed, Chief Torres had known both for only 7 months — and had never directly supervised either of them.”

Moreover, Brann points out that Torres does not appear to have meaningfully consulted any of Salazar or Ysquierdo’s current or former supervisors for first-hand evaluations of their work performance, and there’s no evidence anyone ever told them they needed improvement or were doing a poor job.

Meanwhile, the federal lawsuit remains open.

A hearing is scheduled in mid-May.