Members of the Aberdeen Police Union contend that their First Amendment rights were violated at Monday night's City Council meeting when city officials warned them not to publicly announce their vote of no confidence in Police Chief John R. Jolley.
Minutes before the meeting, City Administrator Peter Dacey told the police officers that to do so would violate a department policy that prohibits department members from addressing public gatherings and making statements that could undermine the effectiveness of the department or interfere with maintaining discipline.
But union attorney H. Edward Andrews said the policy would apply only if the men were acting in the official capacity of police officers. He said that a series of federal "whistle- blowing" cases has established that officers should be able to bring serious departmental problems to the public's attention for the purpose of finding solutions without fear of reprisal.
"What happened last night was the most blatant violation of First Amendment rights I've ever seen," he said. "If the council thinks it can find solace in this so-called policy, I'll challenge it in any court in the land and win."
He said that union members will meet tonight to discuss the possibility of filing a lawsuit against the city for violating their civil rights.
Union President James Osborne was not permitted to read into the public record a 3 1/2 -page letter containing the results of a secret ballot taken last week in which 20 of 23 officers eligible to vote said they have no confidence in Chief Jolley, who allegedly voided dozens of tickets and misappropriated money in a discretionary fund, according to a July 2 report by state prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli.
Mr. Osborne, who has been an officer for nearly six years, said that city officials threatened him with dismissal from the force if he read the letter.
City Attorney Gregory A. Rapisarda said that under the police officers' Bill of Rights, an independent review committee appointed by the police chief determines whether an officer's statements violate departmental policy. Based on the committee's recommendation, the chief then determines what disciplinary action is to be taken. Chief Jolley could not be reached for comment yesterday.
"This is just further proof of the kind of thing we're up against," Mr. Osborne said, adding that the secret ballot was taken so that the officers' grievances would be made public, since all union efforts to effect change through the government have been "stonewalled."
In the letter, union members detailed the results of the vote, which represented 83 percent of department members.
They also listed complaints, including the chief's failure to address the issue of deteriorating equipment, outdated bullet-proof vests, incomplete uniforms and emergency vehicle tires that have been plugged as many as five times.
Union members also challenged the council's decision not to fire Chief Jolley, criticizing council members for "sticking their heads in the sand," and not making a decision "in the best interests of the department and the public."
In a closed meeting July 13, the council voted 4-1 to thwart a bid by Mayor Ruth Elliott to oust the chief and voted instead to give the matter to Mr. Dacey, who suspended the chief for five days, made him forfeit pay for 10 days' work and denied him his next scheduled pay raise -- a punishment the mayor and union members have criticized as being "a slap on the wrist."
Mr. Montanarelli's report, based on a five-month investigation, found the chief illegally voided dozens of parking and traffic tickets and misappropriated money in a discretionary fund under his control.
Although the chief was found to have been involved in official misconduct, Mr. Montanarelli did not pursue criminal charges because, he said, the chief did not personally benefit from the improprieties and because the amount of money involved was minimal.