Seven Pennsauken police officers file lawsuit

Posted: March 23, 2013

The lawsuit filed by seven Pennsauken police reads like the wild, wild West. There are barroom brawls, allegations of an extramarital affair, and a police chief who allegedly won't speak to his underlings.

The May 7, 2011, brawl at the Pinsetter bowling alley on Maple Avenue involved some of the plaintiffs and other off-duty police, with two plaintiffs contending they were sucker-punched.

"The whole thing at Pinsetter's becomes a fiasco," said lawyer Katherine Hartman, who filed the suit in Camden federal court Friday.

Despite the colorful stories, the suit is a First Amendment freedom-of-speech case.

The officers say they were subjected to harsher investigations and stiffer discipline by Chief John Coffey in the Pinsetter incident and others because they pushed for a 12-hour work schedule, speaking out in public meetings and advocating through their union.

"I haven't seen the suit," said Michael Joyce, the township's attorney, declining to comment.

The men seek compensation for emotional distress, medical expenses, loss of reputation, and lost wages due to what they describe as unfair disciplinary procedures. Officers who kept mum about the shift change, the suit says, were not punished as harshly or as often.

The defendants are Coffey, Mayor Rick Taylor, Lt. Michael Probasco, Township Administrator Ed Growchowski, township committee members Betsy McBride, John Kneib, and John Figueroa, and Deputy Mayor Jack Killion.

Killion is the father of one of the plaintiffs, Michael Killion.

"There was no way to avoid that," Hartman said.

Other plaintiffs are Michael Biazzo, Douglas Foster, Socrates Kouvatas, Eric Morton, William Hertline, and Mark Bristow.

Starting in 2009, the suit says, some officers began to investigate replacing the traditional eight-hour day, five-day week, with a schedule that called for shorter work weeks and 12-hour days.

They worked through their union and spoke up at meetings. Eventually, the 12-hour shift was permitted under a side letter to the contract.

"The chief was vocal that he didn't want those 12-hour shifts," said Hartman.

Prior to advocating for the shift change, all seven officers had received commendations and had never been disciplined, according to the suit, but after they sought the change, they were disciplined by the chief for a variety of incidents while other officers were not.

In the Pinsetter brawl, for example, only the officers who were proponents of the shift change were disciplined, it says. Others who were involved but who were not advocates of the shift change were not disciplined, it adds.

The lawsuit also describes another incident at a bar. Biazzo, the suit says, was one of at least nine off-duty officers there. The chief sought his dismissal but issued letters of reprimands to the others.

Another plaintiff, Douglas Foster, was investigated unfairly, the suit says, after he learned that his sister's husband was allegedly having an affair with a Pennsauken sergeant's wife.

The suit says the "chief's vendetta" has been expensive for Pennsauken, with a hearing officer being paid $19,000 in the last 14 months to handle cases involving 10 officers.

In the prior two years, the same hearing officer earned $6,137.50 for cases involving three officers. An outside law firm has also billed $25,000 for prosecuting the disciplinary matters, the suit says.


Contact Jane Von Bergen at jvonbergen@phillynews.com, @JaneVonBergen on Twitter, or at 215-854-2769. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing

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