Reassignment of a K-9 officer with the Lynchburg Police Department last fall has led to a legal scuffle over why it was done, with the officer arguing undocumented and uninvestigated citizen complaints played a major role in a decision he regards as “punitive.”
Nathan Godsie had been a K-9 officer with LPD for eight years when his superiors first told him this past August he would be removed from the K-9 unit, according to documentation on his transfer. He claimed in a grievance it was a move “to protect me because I was being targeted” by the community following complaints LPD never documented or investigated.
The transfer and his grievance have culminated in a civil appeal that moved forward in Lynchburg Circuit Court on Wednesday.
The only complaint against Godsie on paper, according to case documents, is a use of force lawsuit filed last March that names him as a defendant. He is one of three officers included in the federal lawsuit, which alleges excessive use of force and civil rights violations against a man named Larry Booker.
Booker, who is Black, was arrested during a traffic stop in July 2018 that sent him to the hospital and left him charged with 14 crimes, including narcotics charges, firearm charges and evasion crimes. The drug charges were dropped and he was sentenced to two years and three months for illegally possessing a gun, trying to flee law enforcement and obstruction of justice. State records indicate he’s no longer incarcerated in Virginia.
Booker’s lawsuit, which alleges Godsie used excessive force when he ordered a police dog to bite him while he was being detained, still is pending in federal court.
That case and the resulting publicity were brought up by Godsie’s superiors to him earlier this year and are mentioned in his grievance. LPD Chief Ryan Zuidema wrote a formal notice of Godsie’s transfer Sept. 11, a week after The News & Advance published an article about the lawsuit. Godsie said information in the article was “frivolous” and his superiors requested a threat assessment be performed on him after it was published.
Zuidema doesn’t state why Godsie was being reassigned and praises his contributions to the unit.
“The decision to reassign you from the Canine Unit was not an easy one,” the letter reads.
Godsie filed his grievance in response. He and his attorney claimed he was being punished by the reassignment as “a means by which the Department can demonstrate a disciplinary action to the community members responding to the allegations of Mr. Booker.”
In discussions with his superiors leading up to the transfer, Godsie mentioned complaints from the community coming up, citing “comments stating that I should not be in the Canine Unit nor should I be a Police Officer.”
“… By PD policy all complaints against officers are to be documented and investigated,” he wrote in his grievance. “However this was never done despite these unsubstantiated allegations being used as a reason for my transfer.”
Zuidema, and eventually Lynchburg Interim City Manager Reid Wodicka, wrote to Godsie and his attorney, Rhonda Overstreet, saying city procedure doesn’t allow him to file a grievance over his transfer under the circumstances.
Overstreet argued that his reassignment was an “inappropriate application of personnel policies” and requested Godsie’s position — which comes with $1,500 in additional certification pay along with other benefits — be reinstated.
“Aside from the Booker incident and the Department’s perception of public pressure, there is no explanation for the actions of the Department,” she wrote to Wodicka.
In response, Wodicka said Godsie didn’t provide facts to support his transfer was disciplinary during a grievance hearing. He went on to say that special assignments such as the K-9 unit aren’t necessarily permanent placements and it’s in the police department’s best interest to shift them periodically “so that there is a diversity of experiences among the members of the Department.”
Godsie’s appeal to Lynchburg Circuit Court followed. He and Zuidema appeared in court Wednesday afternoon for a hearing in which any scheduled testimony was canceled.
Overstreet and Matthew Freedman, deputy city attorney, both told Lynchburg Circuit Judge Fred Watson they waived any oral argument on the case.
It will proceed through written arguments over the next few weeks, Watson decided.
Neither attorney would provide a statement to The News & Advance after the hearing, and neither did Zuidema.
“We don’t discuss personnel matters at all,” Zuidema said.
Carlos Hutcherson, who is representing Booker in the federal lawsuit, said Wednesday he had no prior knowledge of Godsie’s transfer.
“We are anticipating to see what the outcome is,” he said.