In response to a federal judge’s ruling that the village should not have fired one of its police officers last spring, Mayor Anthony Calderone defended the police chief who sought that officer’s badge against biting criticisms that the chief was deceptive and possibly part of a conspiracy.
U.S. District Court Judge James Moran delivered a 17-page decision early this month stating that former sergeant Dan Harder’s dismissal from the Forest Park Police Department in March 2007 was “arbitrary and unreasonable.” Moran, who is also presiding over a lawsuit filed by Harder against the village, took wide latitude in reviewing the actions of the municipal Fire and Police Commission. That body heard evidence over the course of 11 months on a list of 10 charges for which Police Chief Jim Ryan sought to have Harder fired.
Upon reviewing the testimony offered during the commission hearings, Moran found the police chief’s word to be “extremely improbable,” “incredible” and “suspicious, at the very least” on several matters.
Though Moran stated it is not the court’s role to debate the truth of what was presented to the Fire and Police Commission, such critical commentary is offered throughout the document. The purpose of the judge’s review of the local proceedings was to determine whether the village had proper cause to fire Harder. The former sergeant requested that review – as allowed under state law – a month after he was terminated.
To defend himself against Ryan’s allegations that he used coarse language, lied and abused his allotted sick time, Harder argued that Ryan was only attempting to exact revenge for a sexual harassment suit he filed against the village several years prior. That case was settled out of court and prompted the resignation of former police chief Ed Pope.
“While we find a wealth of evidence in the record to support a retaliation defense, we are unable, due to our deference to the board, to say that the board’s rejection [of that defense] was against the manifest weight of the evidence,” Moran stated in his ruling.
The mayor categorically denied playing any role in Harder’s alleged conspiracy and said he has never targeted a village employee for any such reason. Ryan did not respond to requests for comment on the ruling.
“I’ve never found the chief to lie,” Calderone said in response to the federal ruling.
Calderone said it was “impossible” for him to say whether the judge’s criticisms of the police chief might be valid. Because he was a witness in the case, Calderone attended only those sessions of Harder’s termination hearings in which he was asked to testify. Furthermore, the mayor said he can’t vouch for what the judge was given to review.
“I don’t know what the judge read,” Calderone said.
The mayor said he has no plans to review any of the records from Harder’s case that might help him form an opinion as to whether Ryan was truthful, nor has he decided whether he’ll discuss the ruling with the chief.
Calderone, who serves as the commissioner of the police department, said he’s given no consideration to firing Ryan and is not bothered by the judge’s suggestion that Ryan was dishonest.
“What proof is there [that Ryan lied],” Calderone asked.
The May 2 ruling will force the Fire and Police Commission to reconvene and deliberate anew what punishment should be meted instead of Harder’s dismissal. All 10 of the allegations lodged by Ryan were upheld by the commission and the judge sustained nine of those counts. The federal court disagreed that Harder abused a department policy that allotted officers 80 sick days per year, and pointed largely to a lack of evidence offered by the police chief to support his claim that Harder wasn’t actually ill.
Of the 10 policy violations filed by Ryan, seven stemmed from a single incident in which Harder cursed at a subordinate officer while in the presence of co-workers. Harder admitted to this behavior during his testimony before the Fire and Police Commission and the judge sustained the municipality’s findings. However, he found the punishment too severe and chastised Ryan over the apparent lack of progressive discipline.
“The record reveals that no other officer had ever been at risk of losing his or her job for swearing at another officer, either in jest or in seriousness,” Moran said in his ruling. “… No officer had been suspended, let alone terminated, for the use of profanity in the department, even when it was done by a superior officer to a subordinate officer.”
As for the chief’s allegation that Harder was dishonest on several occasions, the court allowed that the infractions wade into a somewhat gray area. Dishonesty among police officers has generally been divided by Illinois courts into two categories, said Moran: those instances that “relate directly to the officer’s public duties and those which only relate to internal police administration.” The judge found that Harder’s deceits had no bearing on his responsibilities to the public and do not warrant termination.
Attorney Charles Hervas serves as counsel for the Fire and Police Commission and presided over the termination hearings for the former sergeant, ruling on such matters as the admissibility of evidence. Hervas characterized the federal opinion as “very unusual” because of the volume of commentary that’s offered. He defended the commission’s ruling and said it “reflects the standards of the village.”
“Remember, the judge sustained nine of the 10 charges,” Hervas said. “He just concluded that the punishment was too harsh. I’ve been doing this a long time and this was an unusual opinion.”
The federal judge was at a distinct disadvantage, said Hervas, because he was not present for the testimony.
Harder declined to comment on the ruling, but his attorney Jeanine Stevens said the judge’s opinion paints the previous proceedings in an unflattering light. Stevens said she is “confident that the board will do the right thing” when it reconsiders the case.
Under state law the Fire and Police Commission can impose a maximum penalty, short of termination, of a 30-day suspension with or without pay. No date has been established yet for the commission to reconsider the case.
Meanwhile, Harder’s lawsuit against the village is still pending.