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Disciplined for Public Comments, Officer, Dispatcher Sue Long Beach Police Chief

November 30, 1989|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — A police officer and a dispatcher, who were disciplined after their views about the Police Department were published in a newspaper, have filed lawsuits charging that Police Chief Lawrence Binkley violated their "constitutional right of free speech."

Officer Greg Roberts and dispatcher Charles Cobbley were reprimanded for writing letters to the Press-Telegram earlier this year. Both men are now seeking to clear their records and change the department's practice. The suits also seek an unspecified amount in damages.

Roberts' lawsuit was filed Tuesday and Cobbley's lawsuit was filed Nov. 3, both in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Their attorney, James E. Trott, said he plans to file at least three more lawsuits on behalf of other officers who were investigated or disciplined for comments that placed the department or the chief in a negative light.

At least eight officers have been investigated, threatened with an investigation or reprimanded this year for publicly commenting on the department or on sensitive issues. The remarks were made in forums ranging from the letters-to-the-editor page to a retirement party.

Binkley has said that officers should have gone through the chain of command to air their concerns and complaints. Public criticism, he said, is inappropriate.

But the officers complain that their First Amendment rights have been violated.

"The last time I checked, the American flag was still flying in front of that building," said Trott, the officers' attorney.

Roberts was reprimanded for insubordination and "bringing the department into disrepute" after his letter was published Oct. 17. Roberts blamed "incompetent police management" for inadequate patrol staffing. In his letter, he did not identify himself as an officer.

As a result of the letter, Roberts also may have lost an opportunity to work an overtime shift, which had been previously approved, according to the lawsuit. When he questioned why he was taken off the roster for an overtime shift, "he was advised the decision was made by the administration and no other details were provided," according to the lawsuit, which also names the city and Police Cmdr. John Bretza as defendants.

Cobbley was reprimanded for insubordination and violating the department's policy dealing with professional journal publications after his letter, which criticized police management, was published May 21.

In his letter, Cobbley specified that he was not speaking as an authorized representative of the department but as a private citizen. His lawsuit also names the city and Lt. Michael Kunst as defendants.

Officers say that the informal gag order is partly a result of the growing tension between management and the rank-and-file, who are battling over a new contract.

The City Council last week declared an impasse in negotiations, and imposed the city's contract offer. But the Police Officers Assn. immediately took the issue to court, and the city agreed to delay imposition of the new contract until a court hearing Dec. 14.

Many officers have said they want to be free to express their opinions on department issues--regardless of where the contract negotiations stand. As a result of the crackdown, Officer Ray Faraca recently circulated a petition advocating "freedom of speech," for officers. The petition has been signed by about 260 officers--more than 40% of the force--Faraca said.

The petition said police officers "possess the exact same rights and privileges that all citizens enjoy and hold so sacred. . . . We can no longer condone the department's obsession to become the 'one and only voice.'

"We all gave an oath to serve and protect the public but we did not pledge an 'Oath of Silence.' "

Meanwhile, the Public Safety Advisory Commission, which oversees police safety issues, plans to continue its discussion of the department's media policy at its next meeting Dec. 13. Several commission members have expressed concern that officers' First Amendment rights may have been violated.

Police administrators say officers can be disciplined for being disloyal or for violating various policies that, among other things, forbid them from publicly criticizing orders they receive.

At the Los Angeles Police Department, "Officers are free to write letters to the editor as long as the position they take is identified as their personal position rather than the position of the department," regardless of whether it is critical, according to Fred Nixon, a department spokesman.

"There would be no discipline taken . . . for a mere expression of an opinion or being quoted in the paper or having written a letter to the editor," Nixon said.

Long Beach Councilman Les Robbins, immediate past president of the 5,000-member union that represents sheriff's deputies, said he knew of no deputy disciplined for making statements to the press.

Robbins said he sides "more with those who advocate First Amendment rights." But, Robbins continued, he also tells cadets at his law enforcement agency that they can be disciplined for "anything you say or do that can be a disgrace or dishonor to the department."

Councilman Evan Anderson Braude, an attorney who is considered one of the more liberal City Council members, has defended Binkley's policies. "I'm not sure that I would take the same tack as management," Braude said. "But police is a paramilitary organization, and there has to be a special kind of discipline."

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