Testing the limits of free speech. Departmental hearing nears for Trenton officer

Testing the limits of free speech
Departmental hearing nears for Trenton officer
Monday, August 28, 2006 Trenton Times

In more than a decade as a Trenton police officer, William "Butch" Osterman has chased down car thieves, collared a man who doused a barber with gasoline and was dragged by a car driven by a fleeing suspect. His colleagues once chose him as the officer of the year.

But these days, Osterman is the center of his own criminal justice story, one that revolves around free speech and whether using the Internet to criticize his own police department represents a breach of rules, or an exercise of his rights as a citizen.

In April, Osterman was suspended from his $65,000-a-year job without pay after police officials accused him of releasing confidential information to the public on his personal Web site, www.trentonfacts.com.

Osterman had reported in a posting that eight city surveillance cameras were not functioning during a spate of gang-related shootings in which eight people, including two bystanders, were injured. He suggested the shootings might have been avoided had police been able to gather evidence from the cameras.

Now, Osterman is battling to regain his position. His case is scheduled to be heard Wednesday in a departmental hearing.

Police officials have said Osterman's online reporting about the cameras represented a release of information that could potentially jeopardize the safety of his fellow officers and the public. Under department rules, only designated spokesmen are permitted to speak to the media about police matters. A police spokesman would not comment for this story.

To Osterman's lawyer, Stuart Alterman, the suspension without pay of the veteran officer is neither warranted nor in keeping with the law.

And Lewis Maltby, president of the Princeton-based National Workrights Institute, said Osterman, as a public employee, clearly has free-speech rights and appears to have enlightened his readers "about something they may have had a right to know, as a matter of public concern."
It's unfortunate the department chose to suspend him, Maltby said, because in addition to the consequences for Osterman, is the effect it will have on officers in the future who might want to speak out within their rights. "It is certainly an important issue," he said.

What is plain in the dispute is how Osterman's posting about the cameras -- which he titled "Lights! Cameras! Inaction?" -- became the last straw for department brass whose public pronouncements he had skewered on his site.
In the two years he has operated the site, Osterman has poked holes in crime statistics released by the department, explored the high costs of police overtime and rapped the management style of police director Joseph Santiago. The site became a much-anticipated posting among rank-and-file officers, many of whom have privately expressed anger over Santiago's management style.

Osterman said he has never discussed ongoing police investigations. "Talking about other issues within a police department that affect the public is protected speech," he said in an interview. "Public employers cannot silence their employees simply because they disapprove of the content of their speech."

In May 2004, inner-departmental feuding became evident when Osterman was chosen by his colleagues as the Kiwanis Club of Trenton's Officer of the Year. Many officers interpreted the award as a veiled criticism of Santiago, who did not attend the dinner where Osterman received the honor.

Osterman, who has been on the force for 13 years, said in a recent interview that he figured his outspokenness on the Internet might lead to punishment from Santiago. He just didn't think it would come from what he believes was a straightforward critique of the city's new surveillance cameras.

Osterman said he agrees that a designated police spokesman should talk about ongoing investigations. But he argues that his online material is drawn from publicly available sources and is fair game for comment.
His posting about the cameras early on April 24 came the same day Santiago and Mayor Douglas Palmer scheduled a news conference to tout the cameras.

"I think it's rather pathetic that two weeks before the (mayoral) election, another feat is being trumpeted by Mr. Palmer and Mr. Santiago and their natural need for a grandiose announcement," Osterman wrote in the post. "While they're hyping this latest achievement, one that should've been online long ago, I'd like to point out a couple tidbits of information that the public and the media need to think about and maybe question them on."
He revealed that the devices had been hanging in the city for a year -- some were filled with rainwater -- and he questioned if they were switched on because the election was coming.

He accompanied those remarks with a map showing the locations of certain cameras and photos of the devices, which he took with his own camera.

He was suspended the next day.

Osterman said he stuck his neck out in his Internet postings because he believes in telling the truth.

Indeed, his Web site is not his first foray into public criticism of his superiors. He started by writing letters to the editors of both city newspapers before Santiago was the director.

The site debuted in spring 2004, and Osterman started hitting Santiago and his reforms hard. On his Web site, Osterman published statistics he said were obtained through the state's Open Public Records Act, data he said the police and city were not making public. His goal, he said, was to give "the public the chance to see what's really going on and make a decision themselves."

In 2005, Osterman started posting several times a month.
Since his suspension, Osterman has not placed any new postings on the site, although it remains online.
Meanwhile, being out of work is taking a toll on not just Osterman and his fiancée, Laurie, but his nephew, 13, who lives with them and has special needs.

"Like most families in America, I live in a two-income household. Losing my income is ... a great hardship on my family, but more importantly is the fact that I will also lose my health benefits," he said. Having to pay doctors out of pocket, Osterman recently applied for unemployment benefits to help with the bills.

"If I have one regret about this entire incident, it's that my family has had to suffer through these tough times, and will continue to suffer," he said. "Although they've been very supportive, it's been hard on them, especially Laurie."
With the departmental hearing approaching, Osterman said, he remains upbeat.

"Regardless of the final outcome, I will always be proud of what I accomplished with the Web site and the fact that I will always be able to look myself in the mirror," he said.

Comments (0)

New comments are currently disabled.

Email to Friend

Fill in the form below to send this article to a friend:

Email to Friend
* Your Name:
* Your Email:
* Friend's Name:
* Friend's Email:
* Security Image:
Security Image Generate new
Copy the numbers and letters from the security image
* Message: