Police probe alleged remark by union official McLhinney denies he insulted councilwoman

March 12, 1997|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

Baltimore police have begun a preliminary investigation into allegations that the police union president called a city councilwoman a vulgar term, raising questions about how much leeway an officer has in criticizing elected officials.

Councilwoman Sheila Dixon, a 4th District Democrat, filed a complaint yesterday with the department's Internal Investigation Division (IID), which assigned an investigator to the case. Officials could decide the case has no merit and discard it or launch a formal investigation into the charges.

The case has raised several legal questions, including how much First Amendment protection police officers have and whether union officials doing union business are protected from punishment for their conduct.

"I really am confused by the whole thing," said Herbert Weiner, a lawyer for Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3. "It seems to me we have a clear case of somebody trying to stifle legitimate comment from a union official."

Council hearing

The comment allegedly was made by Officer Gary McLhinney during a City Council hearing Friday on racism in the department.

While questioning Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, Dixon questioned the union's commitment to racial equality. McLhinney left the meeting and, according to police spokesman Sam Ringgold, said, "I'm not going to listen to that goddamn bitch."

The union head -- who is granted a paid, full-time leave of absence while serving as president of the labor organization -- denies making the comment. Ringgold said he heard the remark and told Dixon, who demanded an apology. McLhinney sent a letter to Dixon dated March 7 saying that the councilwoman had offered not to file departmental charges if he apologized, which he won't do.

"Had I made a derogatory or inappropriate comment in the heat of the moment, I would not hesitate to offer my sincerest apology," the letter says. "However, I wish to assure you that at no time did I use inappropriate language in reference to you."

Public eye

The case is unusual in that it is so public. Normally, the department will only confirm that an investigation is under way. But McLhinney and Ringgold have named officers who they claim support their positions -- potential witnesses in the case.

Dixon said yesterday that she constantly hears complaints from constituents about "inappropriate" behavior by city officers, and she tells them to file IID complaints. "I'm just doing what I tell others," she said.

Maj. Carl Brown, the IID commander, would not comment on what infraction McLhinney may have committed, but had a spokeswoman fax The Sun a list of the department's regulations.

The 15-page document includes several sections that might apply, such as this rule: "All members of the department shall be quiet, civil and orderly at all times, and shall refrain from coarse, profane or insolent language."

David Bogen, a professor of law at the University of Maryland School of Law, said courts have upheld firing employees for making derogatory comments about their immediate supervisors if it can be proved the comments destroyed a working relationship.

"The use of vulgar terms is usually not punishable," Bogen said, unless it directly affects job performance, such as a receptionist answering the phone in an offensive manner.

Casual comment

He said this case doesn't seem to violate these standards. "Any individual should have the freedom to voice their opinions," the professor said. "A casual comment is not something for which you can be fired."

Weiner said McLhinney clearly was representing the union, not the department, when the alleged comment was made. Charges of conduct unbecoming a police officer can be broadly interpreted, he said, adding that "unless the conduct brings the department into disrepute or erodes public confidence, I don't see where they have any standing to bring a complaint."

Pub Date: 3/12/97

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