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Wednesday, May 28, 2008 07:22 pm

Dead end

Whistleblower cops get shot down in separate federal court actions

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Former ISP Lt. Michale Callahan

The Illinois State Police and the Springfield Police Department each won a major victory in federal court within the past week, but those on the side of the two officers who lost say the decisions don’t bode well for any cop with a conscience. ISP Lt. Michale Callahan and SPD Sgt. Ron Vose — both now retired — filed separate but somewhat similar lawsuits against their supervisors, claiming that they had been retaliated against for blowing the whistle on the misconduct of fellow officers. Callahan initially won his case, and in 2005 he was awarded almost $700,000 in damages by a jury [see Dusty Rhodes, “Badge of honor” Aug. 25, 2005]. Last week, however, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed that verdict. Vose’s case never went to trial. Instead, the city filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit. U.S. District Judge Jeanne Scott denied that motion, but the 7th Circuit reversed her decision. Vose appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which this week let the appellate court’s ruling stand. Both rulings cite Garcetti v. Ceballos, a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision taking away any public employee’s First Amendment protection for statements made “pursuant to their official duties.” For law-enforcement officers, duty-bound to report wrongdoing, this interpretation suggests that they may have forfeited the right to free speech enjoyed by average citizens simply by pinning on a badge. “I took an oath to be a policeman 24 hours a day, seven days a week. So does that mean I’m never a citizen?” Callahan asks. “I guess the scary thing to me is that they’re basically saying that if there’s corruption inside your department they can turn a blind eye and do absolutely nothing about it. This gives a green light to any police agency to just run rampant.”
Callahan’s case involved the 1986 double murder of newlyweds Dyke and Karen Rhoads, who were killed in Paris, Ill. Two men were convicted of the crime, but when Callahan was assigned in 2000 to review the case he found that the two men had been framed and sought permission to investigate a Paris businessman who had been a “person of interest.” After he discovered that the businessman had made significant campaign contributions to Republican officals, Callahan was denied permission to reopen the case, and was transferred from the prestigious investigations division to a more mundane assignment handling traffic citations. On retiring, Callahan sued his former supervisors, claiming that his transfer was punishment for speaking out about the case and for internal-affairs complaints he filed against his supervisors. His arguments have persuaded the criminal courts — the two men convicted of the Rhoads murders have been set free. The supervisors who thwarted his reinvestigation of the case have never been disciplined by the ISP. ISPspokesman Lt. Scott Compton told the Chicago Tribune that the agency was pleased by the ruling. “The department can now continue working on what’s important, and that’s the Rhoads homicide investigation,” he said. Vose, like Callahan, spent much of his career in undercover narcotics investigations. He was involuntarily reassigned to uniformed street-patrol duties after filing a 20-page memo in 2005 outlining alleged policy violations committed by two of the SPD’s star homicide detectives, Jim Graham and Paul Carpenter. Vose’s memo was ultimately given to the ISP to investigate, and the two detectives were fired after a summary of the findings became public [see Dusty Rhodes, “Above the law” Sept. 28, 2006]. Howard Feldman, one of the attorneys who represented Vose, says the current interpretation of Garcetti puts all public employees — including schoolteachers, firefighters, and child-protection workers — in a pickle if they happen to stumble across wrongdoing. “The U.S. Supreme Court and the federal judiciary have taken the position that it is more important to maintain government secrecy than to allow public employees to disclose information that would reveal alleged wrongdoing,” he says. “Obviously this will make for more orderly government. Unfortunately, the most orderly governments are often the most oppressive.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.
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