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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Bronx Cop Loses Round One of Free Speech Battle

MANHATTAN (CN) - The First Amendment does not allow a 14-year veteran police officer to blow the whistle on an alleged quota system in the Bronx, a federal judge ruled.

In late February, Officer Craig Matthews filed an extensive complaint in the Southern District of New York, detailing what he called a "highly developed quota system" in the 42nd Precinct.

According to the complaint, supervisors developed color-coded computer reports in 2008 to monitor the officers' compliance with the quotas, putting those meeting their goals in the black and those who did not in the red.

Officers who met only some quotas were identified by silver ink, and one supervisor described stop-and-frisks as being "worth their weight in gold," Matthews says.

According to the complaint, the quota system has divided the rank-and-file.

"The quota system in the 42nd Precinct has pitted police officers against each other, straining professional relationships and diverting resources away from law enforcement activities," the complaint states. "Officers who comply with the quotas have their precinct lockers dislodged and overturned, with the lockers sometimes placed in the shower or their locks being plastered shut. This practice of 'locker flipping' has escalated to the point where on-duty police officers are now assigned to guard the precinct's locker room around the clock."

After he notified commanding officers, Matthews claims his supervisor, defendant Lt. Mark Sedran, told him at roll call in January, "If you come after me, I will come back after you harder."

(The complaint also named NYPD Deputy Inspector Jon Bloch, Commissioner Ray Kelly and New York City as defendants.)

Though Matthews received more than 20 awards and was reviewed as "incorruptible," his supervisors gave him punitive assignments, denied him overtime and leave, separated him from his longtime partner and humiliated him when he started blowing the whistle, according to his complaint.

Matthews says that the NYPD's alleged retaliation wore down on him so much that they caused him extreme anxiety that once led him to think he was having a heart attack.

On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Barbara Jones ruled that Matthews could not sue for this alleged treatment because the First Amendment does not protect the speech police officers make on the job.

Her 12-page opinion cites the Supreme Court's bitterly contested 5-to-4 ruling in the 2006 case of Garcetti v. Ceballos, throwing out the claim of an employee at the Los Angeles district attorney's office who allegedly got passed up for a promotion for criticizing a bad warrant.

The high court held that government employees have no protections for speech that is "pursuant to" their jobs.

As reported by Mother Jones, whistleblower attorney Steven Kohn called the decision "the single biggest setback" to such cases in the past 25 years, and estimated that the decision would doom more than 90 percent of them.

Matthews' lawyer Christopher Dunn, an associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told Courthouse News in a phone interview that Jones' decision "goes miles beyond" the Garcetti decision.

Whereas the whistleblower in that case, Richard Ceballos, was acting as an employee of the district attorney's office, Matthews aired his grievance in a way available to any civilian, Dunn said.

In her opinion, Jones found, "Matthews' complaints to his supervisors are consistent with his core duties as a police officer, to legally and ethically search, arrest, issue summonses and - in general - police."

If the decision is not overturned on appeal, police will have no avenue for whistleblower protection, Dunn said.

In addition to Matthews' case, the NYCLU has two major lawsuits in the same court opposing the NYPD's controversial stop-and-friskand private-housing patrolprograms.

Though this ruling has no direct impact on those cases, Dunn said that it would stop police abuses from coming to light.

"It's going to shut up police officers because this ruling, if it's allowed to stand, is going to leave them completely open to retaliation without protection," he added.

Meanwhile, a senior city lawyer hope's the "well-reasoned" decision will stand.

""The judge made a well-reasoned decision, and we are pleased the court dismissed the lawsuit," William Fraenkel said.

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