The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation filed suit this afternoon in federal court in Cleveland, on behalf of three African American police supervisors who were threatened with discipline for criticizing police deployment practices in the press.
Lieutenants Robert Miller and Robbin Riley, and Captain Donald Stewart are all members of the African American Supervisors Association (“AASA”). The group, formed in January 2003, advocates for fairness and transparency in the placement of African American supervisors within the Cleveland Police Department.
Of particular concern is a practice called deployment, where officers may be placed in high ranking positions outside of ordinary, merit based civil service channels. In April, members of the AASA raised their concerns about this system with high ranking officials in the police department. In June and July, Lts. Miller and Riley and Capt. Stewart made comments in several Cleveland newspapers critical of the existing deployment scheme. In response, Lts. Miller and Riley received written warnings, cautioning them against speaking to the press again.
The First Amendment protects the rights of public employees to criticize government policy on matters of public concern. Because the AASA is seeking a more equitable system of deployment, that provides better career opportunities for African American Supervisors, the comments of Lts. Miller and Riley and Capt. Stewart are protected expression, and cannot form the basis for discipline.
“Good government depends on transparency,” said B. Jessie Hill, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University who is handling the case as a volunteer for the ACLU. “Democracy functions best when the government is open to informed, intelligent criticism. These high ranking police officers are doing a public service by exposing flaws in the system.”
The suit seeks a court order declaring the AASA and its members are within their rights to criticize deployment practices in the press, and prohibiting the city and the department from retaliating against them.