Archive for Wednesday, January 22, 2003

BCPD officers file lawsuit against Baldwin

January 22, 2003

Although the long-threatened lawsuit by current and former Baldwin City Police officers has been filed in U.S. District Court, their attorney is still maintaining it could be dropped if the city would choose to settle out of court.

The city continues with its stance of being open to a proposal from Dennis Hawver, the officers' attorney, for a solution, according to City Administrator Larry Paine. Both sides believe the other should make first contact on a possible settlement.

"Just because it has gone into the federal court system, it doesn't mean they won't dismiss the lawsuit if their records are cleared and they are compensated for their losses," Hawver said from his Ozawkie office Monday. "We will always listen to any proposals that would correct the situation.

"I haven't gotten a call from anyone offering to make this right," he said. "I think the citizens of Baldwin have better things to spend their money on."

Cpl. Bill Dempsey, officers Eric Garcia and Chuck Hensley, and former officer Chuck Woolsoncroft are seeking damages in excess of $75,000 each for what Hawver is claiming were violations of their First and 14th amendment rights stemming from alleged actions that occurred after an investigation was launched into the department in July of 2001 because of yet another former officer, G.H. Rhea, who resigned less than a week later.

The four officers filed complaints against the city in March of 2002, which were precursors to the lawsuit filed Jan. 7. In April of 2002, Hawver made similar statements to the press regarding the possibility of settling the complaints before they became lawsuits. The city responded with a letter to that effort.

"As we so aptly stated in a letter from Bob (Bezek, city attorney) the last time he made a statement like this, it is his responsibility to make those efforts (proposed settlement) and not use the media as a negotiating platform," said Paine. "If Mr. Hawver was interested in settling this case, then Mr. Hawver should make some effort to do so rather than wishing that someone would call him.

"He's not a teen-age girl waiting by the phone on a Saturday night waiting for it to ring," he said. "If he had the slightest interest in wanting to settle he would not be talking to city officials, he should be talking to those people involved with it from the insurance company. He wants to play games and that's his business."

Discussion of the lawsuit was an agenda item at Tuesday's city council meeting. Paine didn't think there would be much change in the city's stance after Bezek addresses the council with the new information.

"Basically Bob's going to say we got the filing. The document has been reviewed and forwarded to the insurance company and there is nothing in there that indicates we should settle," said Paine.

Hawver said Monday that his clients would settle for the day's pay lost from suspensions levied against them and attorney's fees. He declined to say how much his fees amount to.

"That's between me and them," he said of his clients. "It's not insubstantial. I'm not cheap. It's a reasonable retainer and I'm paid by the hour. I just want my clients to get what's coming to them."

He also wanted to make it clear that he's not suggesting settlement because the lawsuits lack merit.

"I don't want anyone thinking this is someone wanting to settle a weak case," said Hawver. "I think it's a strong case."

He said the First Amendment violation stems from a memo written stating that police officers were not allowed to talk to city council members. The 14th Amendment violation was the result of the council ignoring his clients' request for a neutral fact finder to listen to their suspension appeals, he said.

Hawver also maintains that the personnel records for his clients contain wrongful information resulting from "politics." The city's policy is to release only information to potential employers that a person worked there, the amount of time they worked there and what they were paid. Hawver contends additional information was provided to others when his clients tried to gain employment elsewhere.

"Two of my clients were front runners for jobs in neighboring cities, but didn't get the jobs," he said. "We'll have to see in discovery how that happened."

He did agree when asked if the city wouldn't want to see those officers get jobs elsewhere.

"I would think so, too," said Hawver. "I don't have the information on how that all happened."

He also maintains that the three officers still with the department are concerned about their jobs. Woolsoncroft was fired in October for failing to follow written procedure in dealing with injured animals when he shot an injured cat in downtown Baldwin.

"Since that time (when complaints were filed with the city) one of my clients has been fired and the other three are constantly concerned that they are next on the list," Hawver said.

He also wanted to make it clear that the timing of the lawsuits had nothing to do with the hiring in December of new Police Chief Mike McKenna, who replaced Steve Butell who resigned last summer.

"My clients are extremely happy and impressed with the new chief," Hawver said. "It has nothing to do with the present department. I don't think it's (lawsuits) going to effect trust in the department. This is from previous grievances.

"My clients are continuing to be hurt by political mud. The ball has been in their (city) court for six months. It's a shame it's come to this. If they want to contact me now and talk, I'll be more than happy to do it."

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