Camden officer fired for insubordination fights for his job

Rolan Carter questioned an order to release a driver wanted on warrants.His lawsuit is one of at least 10 against Camden's police department.
Rolan Carter questioned an order to release a driver wanted on warrants.His lawsuit is one of at least 10 against Camden's police department.
Posted: November 15, 2010

On May 13, 2008, Rolan Carter stopped a driver talking on a cell phone.

Carter, a Camden police officer at the time, planned to make an arrest after learning the driver had a suspended license and was wanted on outstanding warrants.

Instead, Carter was told the man was an undercover informant and should be released immediately. The nine-year veteran, honored as officer of the year eight years earlier, questioned the order.

"Sarge, this guy has a suspended license and four active warrants," Carter recalls saying. Reluctantly, he let the man go.

Months later, he was fired for insubordination.

The car stop remains the key point in a case playing out at an administrative hearing in Trenton, where Carter is fighting to get his job back. It's also part of a federal lawsuit Carter filed against the department.

It is not Camden's only legal problem.

The cash-strapped city is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars defending at least 10 lawsuits against the police administration. The suits allege, among numerous complaints, that commanders create a hostile and discriminatory work environment and seek retaliation against those perceived as defiant.

Carter's lawsuit paints a picture of a department rife with cronyism, where he was singled out after repeatedly questioning the status quo, including the actions of a corrupt patrol squad.

"He just wouldn't keep his mouth shut and turn a blind eye to discrimination and blatant illegality," said Cherry Hill lawyer Cliff Van Syoc, who filed Carter's lawsuit.

After Carter raised concerns on Jan. 2, 2007, about one supervisor, Sgt. Dan Morris, he was transferred out of the squad the next day. Officer Jason Stetser replaced him.

This year, Morris and Stetser have pleaded guilty to federal corruption charges, admitting they conducted illegal searches, falsified police reports, and stole money from drug dealers.

Although city officials have declined to comment on Carter's case, public records show Carter's personnel file included disciplinary actions - as well as commendations for bravery and heroism.

Among the reprimands, Carter has been written up for insubordination, parking in the wrong space, abusing sick leave, and improperly wearing his bulletproof vest.

The administrative charges, Van Syoc said, were trumped up in an effort to silence Carter.

For example, Carter said, the bulletproof vest caused a serious skin rash. To prevent that, Carter purchased a uniform carrier, essentially a sleeve for the vest, that he wore regularly.

Carter said no one objected to the vest until August 2008, after he questioned the conduct of various supervisors, including the sergeant who ordered him to release the unlicensed driver - a convicted felon. That's also when he was accused of abusing sick time and ultimately fired for insubordination.

On that May day in 2008, Carter was on patrol near police headquarters when he spotted the driver talking on his cell phone. Carter said he pulled the vehicle over at Seventh and Market Streets, where the irate driver announced, "I work for the state police."

As Carter was doing a background check on the driver, he said, two plainclothes state police troopers arrived. By then, Carter had discovered the warrants and saw that the driver had a suspended license.

A sergeant arrived and ordered Carter to let the driver go. Carter questioned whether that was proper procedure and called his own sergeant for advice. After some debate, Carter watched the driver leave, followed by the plainclothes officers.

"I was very uncomfortable with the way things were playing out," Carter testified at his administrative hearing. "I had never had a situation where I was told to let a wanted person go."

Six weeks later, Carter was charged with insubordination as a result of his interaction with the first sergeant to respond to the scene.

He requested a departmental hearing. Last year, the hearing officer, Joseph F. Audino, concluded Carter should be reinstated.

"This was not a lawful order, to allow a person with four warrants to simply leave and drive away with a suspended license," Audino said when he released his findings.

He also blamed the state police, saying it was "obvious" they failed to run a background check.

"If there's any initial fault, it is the fault of the state police for not doing their job," Audino said.

State police spokesman Sgt. Stephen Jones said that the facts surrounding that case were unclear and that authorities were looking into all allegations.

Audino said, "This whole situation could have been handled better than it was." He said he would forward his recommendations to Chief Scott Thomson, who "will do whatever he wishes to do."

Despite Audino's recommendation, Carter has not been reinstated. This week, Thomson said he could not comment on Carter's case because litigation was pending.

The case was brought before an administrative judge in Trenton in October 2009, and testimony is expected to continue into next month.


Contact staff writer Barbara Boyer at 856-779-3838 or bboyer@phillynews.com.

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