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Panel Backs Police in Test of Free Speech

December 17, 1989|ROXANA KOPETMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — Citing the First Amendment, the city's Public Safety Advisory Commission has recommended that Police Chief Lawrence Binkley stop reprimanding officers who express criticism of him or the Police Department.

"This suppression of communication undermines morale and commitment to the department and violates the officer/employee rights as provided in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution," says the recommendation that commission members approved Wednesday night.

Several officers have been reprimanded this year for expressing their views in newspaper stories or letters to the editor.

The trend of investigating and reprimanding officers who are critical of Binkley or department policies drew the attention of members of the advisory commission, which decided to take up the issue at a meeting last month.

The Long Beach Police Officers Assn. has protested Binkley's policy as a violation of employees' First Amendment rights.

Last month, an officer and a dispatcher--both disciplined after their views were published in the Press-Telegram--filed separate lawsuits against Binkley, claiming he violated their "constitutional right of free speech." Another officer gathered 270 signatures from fellow officers on a petition advocating "freedom of speech."

Binkley has argued that officers with complaints should go through the chain of command and not turn to the press or public to air their concerns.

Commission members, who issue recommendations to the City Council on public safety matters, disagreed.

"While employee discipline is appropriate when released information jeopardizes investigations, prosecutions, safety of officers . . . it is not appropriate when used to repress employees for expressing criticisms of department policies or management," commission members said in their recommendation.

The commission also recommended that the Police Department create a press relations office to help arrange interviews, provide emergency interviews and promote "favorable relations with the media." The proposed public information officer should be there to assist, but "not take the place of talking to the chief," other department heads or the officers themselves, commission member Ron Nelson said.

Commission member Norm Benson, a retired police lieutenant, cast the only vote against sending the recommendations to the City Council, but he later explained that his vote reflected a disagreement over procedure, not content.

Benson said after the meeting that he wanted to hear comments from police union President Mike Tracy and others, who were en route to the meeting Wednesday. At the request of another commissioner, the group took a vote without waiting for Tracy to arrive.

"I just wanted to wait and hear what he (Tracy) had to say," Benson said. "I'm for the (recommended) new policy."

Tracy and other union leaders said in interviews that they were pleased with the commission's recommendation.

"If we are restricted from blowing the whistle, if there is only one voice coming from the Police Department, then we have a police state," Tracy said.

Officer Dan Mallonee, who is on the union's board of directors, called Binkley's policy oppressive. "The wall went down in Berlin, but it went up in Long Beach," he said.

Mayor Ernie Kell said in an interview that he sides with the commission. "I disagree with the chief on this particular issue. The officers have a right to express criticism if they are not jeopardizing a case," Kell said Thursday. "If they want to verbalize their opinion, they have that right."

Officer Ray Faraca, who spearheaded the petition drive advocating "freedom of speech," told the commission: "I know that by speaking to you tonight I won't be in the top 10 (of the department)." But, he said, "They will not violate my First Amendment rights. I'm still a citizen. I still pay my taxes."

Sid Solomon, representing Long Beach Area Citizens Involved, an activist group, commended the police officers who signed the petition.

In a related matter, union leaders have complained that some officers are being harassed if they are perceived as not being loyal to Binkley. Within the past two months, a handful of officers have also received identical letters questioning their "attitude and loyalty" and suggesting that they might be transferred.

In one letter signed by Cmdr. John Bretza, an officer was told: "A positive attitude and department loyalty are important ingredients of a police officer. Your negative attitude and mannerisms hinder not only your performance but the performance of your co-workers. . . . Your attitude and loyalty are having a detrimental impact on the overall effectiveness of the watch. . . . Your progress will be monitored on a daily basis. In order to enhance your performance, an environmental change is being considered."

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