A federal court judge has awarded several former Quartzsite police officers, who once represented a majority of the town’s police force, summary judgment against their former employers.
Judge Mark E. Aspey, a United States Magistrate Judge, ruled in favor of the so-called ‘Quartzsite 8’, and against the Town of Quartzsite, former Police Chief Jeff Gilbert, former Town Manager Alex Taft and former Assistant Town Manager Al Johnson.
“The record in this matter is voluminous, exhibiting a pattern of small town politics and perceived loyalties and disloyalties.”
Chief Gilbert was accused by the officers in 2011 of failing to report paid vacation time as part of his annual leave, misusing the National Criminal Information Center database by using it to run background checks on political foes and misused grant funds.
The officers tried to blow the whistle by reporting to several authorities, including the Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (AZPOST) and the Quartzsite Town Council. A DPS investigation concluded that if Gilbert had permission for the vacation time from Taft (his direct supervisor) then it would not constitute “fraud or criminal behavior” and could not substantiate the other claims.
After these letters were written, the Plaintiffs alleged that there was threatened retaliation from the Chief:
‘Chief Gilbert then threatened retaliation for any officers involved in the DPS investigation against him, stating he knew the names” of those who had “talked against” him and that there would be “consequences” or “hell to pay.”’
From their training, some of the officers say they believed they could lose their certification as police officers if they failed to report any alleged criminal conduct by a superior officer, which they claimed put them in a difficult position. One letter from the officers begins:
‘We…write this letter with great hesitation, and only after much discussion and contemplation. We hesitate because we consider ourselves a team of professional, dedicated, and educated individuals and it goes against our nature to go against the Chief of Police. We also hesitate because we fully believe that if this letter does not have the desired result, and we continue to work under the current administration, there will most certainly be retaliation.’
The letter provided to AZPOST also states Defendant Gilbert was “fixated” on local politics. The letter to the mayor and town council also accused Alex Taft of “delaying, stalling, and obstructing an investigation into their complaints against Chief Gilbert.” Gilbert admitted there was some discord within the department at the time:
“…there just certainly seemed to be friction, you know, I think, on everybody’s part.”
Court documents detail some “tumultuous” public council meetings, including one when an AZCOPS police union representative came to the podium during Call to the Public to speak on behalf of the officers:
‘Plaintiff Ponce stated that Chief Gilbert moved over and stood next to the AZCOPS representative while this individual spoke on behalf of the officers at the meeting, in an effort to intimidate the AZCOPS representative. The Court has reviewed the video recording of the meeting and reached a similar conclusion.’
This was a time during which tensions were high and the public were taking one side or the other. As the court ruling documents: “You could see who supported who based on the colors they were wearing. And when Mayor Ed Foster opened the call to the public and the AZ COPS representative got up to speak, the rest of the council got up and filed out. At that point, the town people became very angry.”
Plaintiff Kemp stated in his deposition that angry citizens and raised voices were normal at Town Council meetings. The accusations of Gilbert included Mayor Ed Foster, who claimed to have been arrested or investigated by the Chief eleven times and cited this as an example of how Gilbert was known to target political enemies.
The officers were eventually terminated by Johnson and Taft. According to court documents:
‘Defendant Johnson stated that, at the time he terminated Plaintiffs, he was aware the Town could not terminate or retaliate against an employee for engaging in protected speech but believed the “discredit” the Plaintiffs brought to the Town outweighed their free speech rights and justified their termination.’
The court disagreed, saying that the actions of the officers is regarded as protected free speech, that their statements “could not reasonably be characterized as recklessly false, let alone intentionally false,” and one letter in particular contained allegations “which undoubtedly were or should have been of great concern to the citizens of Quartzsite.” The judge continued saying that, to the question of whether they were acting merely as officers trying to keep their jobs or as private citizens, that the officers were all “terminated from their employment based on their protected speech as private citizens.”
“It would be absurd to hold that the First Amendment generally authorizes corrupt officials to punish subordinates who blow the whistle simply because the speech somewhat disrupted the office.”
The summary judgment was granted against all defendants, which means that the Town of Quartzsite can be held liable in addition to Jeff Gilbert, Alex Taft and Al Johnson.