The hearings that will determine whether Sgt. Dan Harder will keep his job with the Forest Park Police Department finally began last Thursday. The Board of Police and Fire Commissioners heard opening arguments from both sides as well as testimony from Harder and 13 police officers called as witnesses by Attorney Patrick Lucansky, representing Police Chief James Ryan.
Charges filed by Ryan against Harder include calling a subordinate officer, Young Lee, a “(expletive) idiot” during roll call after he refused to respond to a call, taking excessive time off over the last two years, lying about his whereabouts during a phone conversation with Ryan while out sick, and fabricating a story of an altercation with Sgt. Mike Murphy.
Attorney Jeanine Stevens took over as Harder’s defense attorney, replacing Fraternal Order of Police attorney Erica Raskoph, who represented Harder in two preliminary hearings.
Stevens also represented Harder in 2002 when he and two female officers filed a sexual harassment suit against former Police Chief Ed Pope and then Deputy Chief of Police Michael Cody.
Stevens attempted to establish that swearing is an everyday occurrence at the police station and is not cause for termination. She portrayed Harder, who has been with the police department 21 years, as a well respected cop who never had any trouble until Ryan joined the department.
“Is this really something to discharge an employee for who had a sterling reputation until the chief came along?” she asked the board. “This is a relentless act against Dan Harder.”
Stevens asked the board to reinstate Harder with full back pay and for “no further retaliation” to be allowed.
To establish her assertion that swearing was part of the culture of the police department, Stevens entered into evidence a joke incident investigation report naming Harder and signed by Lt. Steve Knack and distributed throughout the department in October, 2003.
The report states that Harder “slipped while masturbating in the trailer washroom.” In the portion of the report marked for conditions that led up to the incident, it states that “he’s a (expletive) idiot.”
Stevens listed several other examples of swearing among Forest Park police officers for which officers were not disciplined, and stated that during the incident with Officer Lee, which occurred June 4, 2005, Lee also swore at Harder but was not disciplined either for swearing or for insubordination after he refused Harder’s request to respond to a call.
During his testimony, Lee denied that he had sworn at Harder during their altercation.
Lucansky attempted to keep the hearing focused on the acts for which Harder was on trial. When questioning Harder, he asked if superior officers must use patience and discretion when dealing with subordinate officers, if they must abstain from bad language, use sound judgment and treat each other with courtesy.
Harder responded “yes” to all of those questions, and acknowledged that he had not done so by swearing at Lee. He acknowledged that he “was wrong to call Officer Lee a (expletive) idiot.”
Several police officers called to testify acknowledged that swearing was common at the police department, but none who were present during the exchange between Harder and Lee said they had heard Lee swear at Harder.
In his questioning, Lucansky made the case that the majority of the swearing that takes place at the station is in jest. Sgt. Michael Keating, for example, acknowledged that when Ryan asked at roll call if anyone had ever heard someone use a specific curse word more frequently than Keating, he replied “sit the **** down, chiefy, and shut the **** up.”
Asked by Lucansky whether he would have ever made the comment in a serious manner, Keating replied, “Oh no, not to the chief.”
One example Stevens mentioned that was clearly not a joke was an incident when Murphy had been reported for calling another officer an (expletive) liar. According to Stevens, no disciplinary action was taken against Murphy.
Sick day charge debated
Stevens argued that the charge that Harder took excessive sick days was fraudulent. The original charges filed against Harder in September stated that he had taken 54.5 sick days in 2005. The charges, however, were amended after Harder filed a federal suit on Oct. 7 alleging that the accusations violated the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) since most of those sick days were part of a village approved medical leave.
The amended charges stated that Harder had taken 11.5 sick days, but Stevens argued that two of these sick days were taken after Ryan ordered Harder not to return to work until he had seen a doctor. According to the current collective bargaining agreement, an officer with Harder’s experience is allowed 80 sick days per year.
Stevens said that Harder took only two sick days from 2000 to 2002, but once Ryan arrived, “his life became unbearable.” The stress brought on by Ryan’s tactics, she said, caused Harder to seek counseling and led to an anxiety related severe intestinal condition which was the cause of his FMLA time this year.
Stevens also questioned why Harder’s regular days off were included in the charges, since these days largely consisted of the two off days per week that all officers are given.
Lucansky did not focus on the sick day charge during his questioning, but did ask Harder if it was true that he had worked only 44 days in 2005. Stevens said that the question was misleading as not only did the days Harder did not work include the FMLA, they also included his time on administrative leave, which began June 11.
The two sides offered widely differing accounts of the two other major charges against Harder. According to the charges, Ryan attempted to contact Harder at his home after Harder had called in sick on June 10. When Harder’s wife answered, she told Ryan that she thought Harder was at work. Ryan then left a voicemail on Harder’s cell phone, and when Harder returned the call he first told Ryan he was at home, but later said he was “driving around.”
Stevens said that Ryan had falsified his account of the conversation, which was not recorded. She said that Harder had not told his wife he called in sick because he didn’t want her to worry, and that he had been driving around and looking at books on new jobs.
Harder denied telling Ryan than he had been at home, or that he said he had been driving around the entire night. He acknowledged that he was at the home of Sgt. Maureen Frawley when he spoke to Ryan. In response to a question, Harder said he was a close friend of Frawley’s.
Harder stood by his statement made during a June 9 interrogation by Lucansky that Sgt. Mike Murphy had asked him if he had written or had friends who wrote comments about Murphy that were posted on the web site www.forestpark.com.
According to Harder, Murphy told him that “there is a bogey-man inside me that hasn’t come out in a long time,” and that if Harder or a friend had written the comments, he would not be able to control the bogey-man.
Murphy testified that he does not read the web site, and denied that the conversation with Harder had ever taken place.
Establishing a pattern of harassment
Harder filed a complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on Aug. 18 alleging a pattern of harassment by Ryan, and is currently waiting for a letter granting him permission to sue the village.
Stevens attempted to make the case for such a pattern on Thursday. During his testimony, Lee admitted that he regularly joked with Harder that he was a “marked man” or that he’d get the chief to suspend Harder during roll call.
Several other officers who often attend the same roll call as Harder and Lee said they had never heard Lee make these statements. Witnesses were not permitted to listen to each other’s testimony, and therefore the officers did not know Lee had admitted to making the comments.
Officers who acknowledged that they had heard Lee’s comments included Andrea Caines and Marcin Scislowitz.
The next hearing was set for November 16 at 7 p.m. and will begin with Ryan’s testimony.