The case for terminating two Meriden police officers who brought to light information that resulted in the criminal conviction of the police chief’s son is lacking, though city officials say they had no other choice.
Officer Donald Huston was fired last week. Brian Sullivan would have been fired if he hadn’t retired recently on disability.
In 2011, they sent two complaint letters to the city manager alleging the chief’s son, Officer Evan Cossette, had engaged in a pattern of brutality that went unchecked due to nepotism or fear of retaliation. In addition to citing several examples involving Cossette, they included other incidents of what they called disparate treatment of different employees by the administration.
A hearing officer hired by the city, Charles Reynolds, issued two similar reports last week finding that Huston and Sullivan had made public statements they knew to be false or in reckless disregard of the facts and that they had engaged in conduct that brought discredit on the department.
Reynolds’ findings are based largely on the department’s own Internal Affairs probes and another city-commissioned report so it was unlikely Huston and Sullivan were going to get a fair hearing to begin with. But he also consistently ignores or glosses over important facts. The most glaring omission is that Huston and Sullivan’s complaint led to Cossette’s conviction in June for his handling of prisoner Pedro Temich. Reynolds’ findings, dated Sept. 30, say only that “this case is being otherwise handled within the criminal justice system.”
Reynolds is more interested in faulting Huston and Sullivan for writing in their first complaint that Temich “fractured his skull” when he only gashed his head and was knocked unconscious. “Although clearly injured,” Reynolds writes, “the allegation that Temich received a fractured skull is not true.”
More than once he faults Huston and Sullivan for statements that are “untrue in part” or “not completely accurate,” even when the substance was true and rightly cause for alarm. And truth to Reynolds really means whether a statement is consistent with other IA reports or the findings of an attorney the city hired to investigate. Of course, that attorney ruled that administrators’ handling of Evan Cossette’s discipline was reasonable.
Reynolds also faults the officers for including information without fully investigating it themselves, even though the purpose of the letters was to request a full investigation. It’s unrealistic and illogical to expect two subordinates to conduct a thorough probe of their own department’s administration. That’s why they complained to the city manager.
Ultimately Reynolds has trouble supporting the two counts he claims justify termination since Huston and Sullivan never commented publicly themselves and the officers maintain they believed their statements to be true when they made them. The second count, about committing an act that “brings discredit upon the department,” is subjective and could be seen to preclude any employee from ever reporting official misconduct or corruption.
The city’s action against Huston and Sullivan allows the officers’ retaliation lawsuit to move forward, which could cost taxpayers dearly. It also sends a troubling message to other city employees: Blow the whistle on alleged misconduct and you stand a good chance of being investigated yourself.
Reach Eric Cotton at (203) 317-2344 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ecotton3.