The ACLU Defends Rights of Police Officers
The ACLU is well known for its vigorous efforts to combat police misconduct, but not generally recognized for its legal advocacy on behalf of police officers. Because we sometimes need to criticize the misconduct of some police officers and departments, the ACLU is thought to be “anti-cop” in some quarters. This is ironic. We are often in the position of ACLU of New Jersey filed an amicus brief in support of the two officers and the Fraternal Order of Police position that the dismissal constituted a violation of their First Amendment right to religious freedom.
Police officers have also turned to the ACLU when exercising their right to participate in the political process has resulted in retaliation from superiors. The ACLU has represented officers all over the country who have been fired for campaigning for or against elected officials in their chains of command.
- A classic example occurred in North Carolina in 1994 when ten Buncombe County deputy sheriffs were terminated for actively supporting the incumbent, at that time their boss. The deputies engaged in political campaigning only while off duty and fully intended to work loyally and cooperatively with their new sheriff. Nonetheless, he fired them on his first day in office. The ACLU lost this one.
- We were more successful in Georgia, where, in May 1998, four former sheriffs were awarded $1.25 million in damages. The deputies were fired for not publicly supporting a newly elected sheriff. The jury in the case ruled that the sheriff had violated the freedom of speech and association rights of each of the deputies. In a statement to the press, Marcia Borowski, a cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Georgia said, “The jury found that the job of deputy sheriff should not be subject to political patronage . . . We need professional law enforcement personnel protected from the vagaries of politics.”
Many law enforcement officers and many of those who would join their ranks face discrimination in various forms.
- In Los Angeles, for example, the ACLU of Southern California represented a huge class of officers, mostly women, in a class action suit charging that the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) discriminates against women-particularly women of color-in hiring, promotion, and assignment.
- In April 1997, the NYCLU filed a class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a New York City administrative code that imposes a 35-year old age restriction on candidates for the NYCPD. The NYCLU argued that the age limitation was not a narrowly tailored predictor of job performance and that the age restriction was introduced only after the candidates had completed their written and physical examinations. After settling lawsuits made on behalf of 33 men and 6 women, the NYCPD appointed 39 qualified men and women over the age of 35.
- The ACLU of South Carolina filed a discrimination lawsuit on behalf of a nine-year police veteran fired after taking parental leave upon the birth of his first daughter. The ACLU asserts that officials refused to grant the officer parental leave because of his gender and then fired him in retaliation for attempting to exercise his rights.
- TheACLU of Maryland represented a state trooper in the nation’s first-ever sex discrimination case under a federal medical leave act. Immediately after a court victory and $375,000 award, the trooper was barred from returning to work. His employers’ excuse for the retaliation was that his testimony that he suffered mental distress four years earlier called his mental fitness into question. The ACLU moved to have the state police held in contempt, and they reversed their position and reinstated the officer.
Allegheny Police Association president Jim Hasara summed up a feeling shared by many law enforcement officials. “Just because we are police officers,” he said, “doesn’t mean that we gave up our constitutional rights.”
Let the record show that the ACLU supports liberty and justice for all.