As reported by N.J.com, the Pennsauken Police Department was right to suspend six officers in 2011 for violating rules and hindering the investigation of a fight that involved two off-duty officers, an appellate court has ruled.
The conduct was not directly related to the fight May 7, 2011, but to officers’ failure to properly report and investigate the incident and notify ranking officers, according to the decision published Thursday.
The officers appealed their suspensions, arguing that Police Chief John Coffey had violated the rules of internal affairs investigations. They appealed first to the Civil Service Commission and then to the Appellate Division of the New Jersey Superior Court, which affirmed the earlier decision.
Some of the same officers are currently suing police and township officials. They claim in a federal suit that their suspensions in the 2011 incident were part of Coffey’s alleged systematic retaliation against officers who were active in the union and advocating for 12-hour shifts.
One of the officers, Douglas Foster, was fired in 2015 and this summer filed a separate suit against the chief, the township and other officials alleging retaliation.
The decision Thursday affirming the suspensions, written by Judge William E. Nugent, states that the altercation occurred just before 11 p.m. at Pinsetters, a bar and bowling alley.
A fight broke out between officers Michael Biazzo and Michael Killion and other civilians after a “political discussion,” but those involved gave different accounts about who started the fight.
Killion, Biazzo and at least one civilian suffered facial injuries.
After the fight the three off-duty officers who were there, Killion, Biazzo and Vito Moles, left Pinsetters immediately. The department later ruled that they hindered the investigation by leaving the scene before officers could investigate.
Officer Foster, one of the officers who responded, later told his supervisor that a man pushed a woman at Pinsetters, Nugent wrote.
Responding officer William Hertline also did not report the incident to a superior officer. Brazzio eventually did so, but nearly two hours after the altercation.
Two sergeants, Michael Hutnan and Socrates Kouvatas, were notified and investigated. Neither contacted a higher ranking officer per department policy, Nugent wrote.
The chief, upon learning of the incident, initiated an internal affairs investigation. Disciplinary charges including hindering an investigation, conduct not becoming an officer and neglect of duty were filed against various officers.
Sgt. Hutnan was suspended for 10 days and the other officers were all suspended for 30 days.
The officers’ appeal argued that Chief Coffey violated the state regulations regarding internal investigations because he conducted the investigation himself, sought information through questionnaires instead of interviews, and did not inform the officers that they were subjects or witnesses in an internal investigation.
They also argued that he was not fair, but “politically motivated” in his investigation because he was angry with the involved officers for lobbying for 12-hour shifts.
The court found that the chief’s failure to comply with regulations did not taint the investigation.
Meanwhile, a federal civil rights lawsuit regarding the chief and some of the same officers is still alive in U.S. District Court in Camden.
The suit was initially filed by five of the officers suspended in connection with the 2011 fight, Biazzo, Killion, Foster, Kouvatas and Hertline, as well as officers Erik Morton and Mark Bristow.
They argued that the police chief, then lieutenant Michael Probasco, and other city officials had violated their right to free speech by retaliating against them for their outspoken support for 12-hour shifts.
They argued in the suit that in addition to targeting them for the 2011 suspensions, the chief had issued to them other reprimands and suspensions without good cause, given them undesirable assignments, refused their leave requests, shared the confidential internal affairs investigation with others, and caused them to be ostracized within the department.
A judge dismissed the suit in November, saying the officers failed to specify how they spoke out and to prove that their advocacy was protected speech. Five of them filed a new complaint in January, and the case is ongoing.