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New London, police chief are targeted in lawsuit

By Sasha Goldstein

Publication: The Day

Published March 16. 2012 4:00AM
Police union president says he was singled out for retribution for critical remarks, associations

New London - One day after the city police union filed a complaint with the state labor board, union President Todd Lynch sued the city and Police Chief Margaret Ackley, alleging that Ackley punished Lynch for being an outspoken critic.

The 44-page lawsuit, filed Thursday, cites emails sent from Ackley's personal email account to support its allegations that Ackley "retaliated and disciplined" Lynch because of things he said and because of the people with whom he associated.

The suit asks for more than $15,000 in damages.

Also on Thursday, Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio discussed the ongoing turmoil in the police department, saying some members of the city's police union are using paperwork to act as "obstructionists" when it comes to changes Ackley has made in departmental procedures and policies.

Finizio said Ackley, who became police chief in June 2009, has worked to implement a department based on community policing, a change some officers who would rather "crack some skulls" have resisted. "I don't believe that is the appropriate way to do community policing in the 21st century," he said.

Those who disagree with the changes are free to leave the department, Finizio said.

The suit alleges that the "adverse employment actions" used by Ackley constitute a violation of state general statute 31-51q, which was enacted in 1983 to protect employees from discipline or discharge based on the exercise of First Amendment rights in the workplace.

Another count alleges violation of a federal statute, Section 1983, which covers violations of civil rights, and a third claims Ackley sent libelous emails to "known political gadfly" Kathleen Mitchell, a city resident.

Lynch, who joined the department in 2007, was elected union president in November.

"It's regretful that any of these complaints have to be filed," said Gordon Videll, whose partner, Christine Synodi, represents Lynch. "However, this was the only way left Todd could address these issues."

The suit's six allegations, three each for the city and Ackley, outline Ackley's and Lynch's interactions beginning in September 2010, when Lynch suggested "that the Union look into a no-confidence vote" against Ackley.

In March 2011, the suit states, Lynch became union vice president and, in June, endorsed Michael Buscetto III for mayor on behalf of the union. Lynch and union members then wrote an "open letter" and published it as an advertisement in The Day, the suit adds, claiming that the police department "has been in a managerial crisis since Margaret Ackley assumed command ... "

Last month, the suit contends, Lynch called for Ackley to be placed on administrative leave, alleging that she had violated a mayoral executive order regarding the immigration status of residents.

Those actions, the suit states, led Ackley to retaliate, disciplining Lynch at work by changing his schedule, denying his request to attend a conference that he had attended in the past, suspending his police canine after a different police dog bit someone, requiring a sergeant to observe all police dog trainings, denying his request to attend a funeral, requiring him to download his in-car camera after every shift for several months "but required no other officer in the department to do the same" and scheduling union issues to be heard on his days off.

Ackley's intent, the suit states, is evident in her email communications with Mitchell.

"Time to throw another bomb, maybe you should send an FOI request to VIEW all law suits concerning police K-9's as well as all Civilian Complaints concerning Todd Lynch," one August 2011 email from Ackley to Mitchell reads, the suit contends.

"Buscetto helped him via Dittman get the seat of vice president on the union and his sole job is to cause me problems, push me out, make me look bad," a second email reads.

Another email from Ackley to Mitchell, the suit states, is libelous "by virtue of its false and defamatory and malicious nature and its intent to harm the Plaintiff and his reputation with the public."

Mitchell said Thursday that she released her correspondence with Ackley, about 160 emails, after she suspected Ackley was using her to influence September's Democratic mayoral primary between Buscetto and Finizio.

"From the very beginning, when the chief first started complaining about Buscetto and the treatment she was getting from the various officers, I believed her and supported her," Mitchell said. "Towards the end of our online conversation, I began to wonder if Daryl (Finizio) was involved in this somehow. She referred twice in the emails to, 'when there's a new mayor, this will change,' and I began to wonder if there wasn't some conspiring between Daryl and the chief to make this a two-person election."

In August, Ackley appeared before the city council and said she wanted to retire because she was unable to do her job because of systematic interference by then-City Councilor and mayoral candidate Buscetto. At the time, she threatened a lawsuit against the city.

In January, Finizio announced that he had agreed to pay Ackley $25,000 to settle the complaint against Buscetto. An independent report by former Superior Court Judge Beverly J. Hodgson found that the city was not liable for actions or negligence in connection with that complaint.

The council later voted not to fund the settlement and no payment was made.

Ackley could not be reached to comment Thursday.

The suit comes one day after union attorney Richard Gudis filed a complaint with the state labor board alleging that, over the past two years, city officials have created "an environment of Anti-Union animus."

Around the same time the suit was filed Thursday, Finizio met with reporters at City Hall to discuss ongoing issues in the police department.

Despite the lawsuit and complaint, Finizio reiterated that he stands behind Ackley's policies and leadership. Whether the claims are legitimate or frivolous "will be determined," he said.

Finizio would not speak directly about the lawsuit, but did say "no one is above the law; everyone has to follow the proper procedures."

Before Ackley, Finizio said, New London was "behind the times."

Finizio said Ackley is facing significant "institutional resistance within the department to these policy changes" and that he is "calling her in some backup" in the form of new administrators, including a deputy chief, the hiring of whom Finizio said he expects soon.

The city has been without a deputy chief since early January, when Marshall Segar's contract for that position was not renewed. Former Capts. William Dittman and Michael Lacey retired in January and Finizio said Thursday that a captain will be promoted internally "by May 1."

"I believe we are moving in the right direction, and when this restructuring is complete and the new policies are fully implemented, that the city of New London will have a police department that the city and the state will look to as a model for integrity and excellence," Finizio said.

s.goldstein@theday.com

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