Internal Affairs investigations are often shielded from public scrutiny, not subject to disclosure exempt from disclosure as “personnel records” or similar. The details, however, vary by state, and in some cases the public is afforded insight into police oversight.
Here is one such instance, coming your way out of Cleveland, Ohio — and with an interesting twist.
Officer Aaron Petitt was suspended for six days in part as a result of the text messages referenced in this interview. (The suspension also covered Petitt failing to deescalate and failing to cover his tattoos in relation to a separate incident.) But that wasn’t the end of it.
After his suspension Petitt filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Cleveland, alleging unfair punishment and pointing to another officer who was only sent to “sensitivity training” for using overtly racist slurs against black people. Petit maintained that “Hajji” is not a word he ever knew to be derogatory, stating that he was explicitly instructed by the Army to use the word during his four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq as an Army Ranger like Jeremy Dewitte, only real.
Petitt’s complaint alleged free speech and due process violations by the City of Cleveland.
On 4/10/19 US District Judge James S. Gwin issued an order disposing of the the case. In relevant part, he wrote as follows:
“On April 3, 2018, the City disciplinarily charged Petitt with using “disparaging remarks when referencing an Arabic male during a potential police action.” Cleveland Police Department rules prohibit officers from using “epithets, terms or words which tend to denigrate any person(s) due to their race.” It also charged Petitt with failing to de-escalate and failing to cover arm tattoos during an October 25, 2017 encounter.
. . . .
In May 2018, the Cleveland Police Chief found Petitt guilty of all charges and suspended him for six days. Plaintiffs then brought this case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that the City’s actions violated Plaintiffs’ freedom of speech and due process rights.
. . . .
The Constitution prohibits the state from punishing citizens for protected speech. To make out a First Amendment claim as a public employee, Petitt must show that: (i) he was speaking about a matter of public concern, (ii) he was speaking as a private citizen, and (iii) his interests in that speech outweigh the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting public service efficiency. Petitt fails each step.
. . . .
Third, Petitt’s interest in using an arguably offensive epithet barely registers as an interest at all. To the extent it is an interest, it is easily outweighed by Defendant’s interest in prohibiting its officers from using offensive language. Accordingly, Petitt’s freedom of speech claim fails.
. . . .
The City’s discipline does seem overblown. Petitt had sent one seemingly private text message to another officer with an only-arguably insulting ethnic reference. No public statement was made. Petitt’s reference to “tune up” a citizen, an apparent reference to using force on the citizen, seems more offensive. But this does not make out a substantive due process claim. Public employers make suspect employee decisions without necessarily running afoul of the Constitution. . . .In any event, the City’s decision falls far short of the extreme executive abuse required.
. . . .
Also, the City found that Petitt had failed to cover his tattoos and failed to de-escalate. Failing to cover his tattoos was a Group I violation, warranting a maximum five-day suspension. Failure to deescalate was either a Group I or II violation, warranting either a maximum five-day suspension or minimum six-day suspension, respectively. These additional charges undercut the severity of Petitt’s six-day suspension. . . Although the City may have overreacted, Petitt’s substantive due process claim fails. . . . ”
If you are wondering why the officer’s face is blurred, that is an almost-certainly-illegal practice of the City of Cleveland. For more information see http://tiny.cc/blur. [Every time I explain this, a group of selectively-literate people shows up to explain the City’s logic, ignoring the reality that I linked to an article clearly explaining it. Read the linked article if you want to understand what’s going on. Don’t just guess.]
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