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A Washington, D.C., judge found that the Metropolitan Police Department’s media policy is constitutional, but how the department enforced it against a detective who spoke out against it to a newspaper in 2009 was unlawful.
District Judge James Boasberg ruled that Detective William Hawkins did not break department rules when he talked to a Washington Post reporter because he spoke as a representative of a police union and not a member of the department.
“One of the most important things out there for the public is the ability to hear from an officer on the street,” said Kristopher Baumann, chairman of the D.C. Police Union. “Are things working? Are issues they’re hearing from politicians correct as they relate to the application in our neighborhoods? It’s hugely important for our officers to provide that information.”
In 2009, Hawkins spoke to a Post reporter about his concerns that a department initiative prevented detectives from solving crimes in a timely manner. Department officials disciplined Hawkins because he did not inform his supervisor or the public information office about his interview with the reporter. Soon after, Hawkins sued the department for violating his First Amendment rights.
Boasberg ruled in May 2011 that union representatives can be protected under the D.C. Whistleblower Protection Act based on Hawkins’ lawsuit, but did not rule at the time on whether Hawkins deserved that protection when speaking to the Post reporter.
The police department argued that Hawkins spoke in an official capacity because he was identified in the article as a detective, not a union member. But that was not a substantial enough reason to discipline him, according to Boasberg.
Baumann said he had asked Hawkins to speak to the reporter on the behalf of the union and Boasberg agreed.
“In our contract with the city, the union has the ability to speak on behalf of its members about our policies and public safety issues,” Baumann said. “I have the authority to delegate who is going to speak on those matters for the union. I delegated Detective Hawkins because he had relevant knowledge as it related to what was going on.”
Baumann said the judge’s decision has created a roadmap for when District employees earn union protection when blowing the whistle on fraud, waste and mismanagement.
“Squelching the ability for officers to provide [public service] information is dangerous,” Baumann said. “As a resident and taxpayer I want to know what my police officers have to say and what they think about the policies and practices of what’s going on out there.”