NJ cop’s ‘extreme and crude’ urine joke not covered by free speech
MORRIS TOWNSHIP — A police officer who was suspended after sending a picture of him pretending to urinate while venting about ongoing labor negotiations had his suspension upheld by a state board.
A decision released this year by the state Public Employment Relations Commission said the suspension of Sgt. Sean O'Hare was warranted because, while it was sent on his private email to other officers' private emails, it demonstrated conduct unbecoming of an officer.
In a copy of the email provided as part of the PERC decision, O'Hare can be seen in a photo standing in front of a stream of water, giving the appearance that he is urinating. In the body of the email, O'Hare says:
The email refers to Timothy Quinn, the town's business administrator, who was also a former police chief.
O'Hare and Heather Glogolich, who was the president of the rank-and-file unit of the PBA, had started the email chain to discuss contract negotiations. In the township, the PBA is split into two groups: One for patrol officers, and one for sergeant and above. O'Hare served as financial secretary of the Superior Officers Association.
A previous agreement between the township and the SOA expired on Dec. 31, 2013. Negotiations had started on a new agreement in October of that year but those efforts were suspended until an agreement was reached with the patrol division.
The email in question was sent on June 14, 2014, with the 2 percent referring to the salary increase cap. O'Hare had said in previous emails that the town would not go beyond the cap imposed during arbitration. O'Hare was reportedly frustrated by the town's position during negotiations.
After a copy of the email was anonymously sent to Quinn, an internal affairs investigation was launched by the department. During the investigation, O'Hare admitted to sending the email, and a 20-day suspension without pay was proposed prior to a hearing on the charges. During a disciplinary hearing, the chief of police said he thought he had proposed a 10-day suspension for O'Hare, and was unsure why the notice called for a 20-day suspension instead. The township had also urged a 10-day suspension.
On Jan. 19, 2016, the hearing officer recommended a five-day suspension without pay, and the township adopted the recommendation at a meeting on March 16. O'Hare filed a complaint on March 24 in Superior Court appealing the decision, saying the punishment was in retaliation for his exercising his right of free speech.
The PERC decision noted that exceptions have been made for "adversarial and impulsive behavior during negotiations and grievance meetings," however those exceptions did not apply in cases where the speech "indefensibly threatens workplace discipline, order and respect."
The decision also noted that in some ways O'Hare's email could have been protected and considered free speech. While O'Hare's section of the union was not in "active" negotiations, PERC said "we can assume he was invested in the status of negotiations" of other part of the union.
"Had O'Hare communicated his displeasure with the Township negotiations position without such graphic vulgarity, profanity, and contempt of the Township Administrator, we likely would have found it to be protected activity," the decision said. "Given the unique characteristics, content, and consequences of his email, however, we are constrained to find that O'hare forfeited the protection of the Act."
Calling the email "extreme and crude," and noting that it "demonstrated unprofessional and disrespectful behavior," the decision said it "demonstrated unprofessional and disrespectful behavior, undermines authority, and hows contempt for the administration and Quinn."
Glogolich said during the departmental hearing that other officers who used profanity and made negative comments about township officials had not received similar punishments, but also admitted she did not remember any emails that had gone as far as O'Hare had sent. O'Hare himself admitted that the email had been inappropriate.
The commission said the township had a "legitimate business justification for disciplining O'Hare," and upheld the punishment against him.
Calls and emails to the department and the township seeking comment were not returned by Tuesday afternoon.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com