By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
SLIPPERY ROCK —
Terry Brown is suing Slippery Rock officials, claiming he was wrongfully fired from his police chief job because he wouldn't endorse council's proposal to merge the borough and Slippery Rock Township.
The federal lawsuit was filed Dec. 5 in U.S. District Court, Western District of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, and Brown has requested a jury trial.
The defendants are: Blase Tucci, who was council vice president at the time of Brown's firing in 2010; David Miller, current council president; and Neva Stanger, the borough's solicitor.
Council discussed the lawsuit Jan. 8 in executive session after adjourning their regular meeting.
According to court documents:
The borough had provided police services to the township for a contracted dollar amount known as the Slippery Rock Borough Police Services Mutual Aid Agreement.
Both towns began to renegotiate the agreement in late 2009 or early 2010, the same time borough council proposed the two municipalities merge into one entity, a proposal led by Tucci and Miller.
Township residents and supervisors were opposed to the idea.
Brown, a township resident, had worked as a patrolman for the borough for 24 years at that time and was named chief of police in 2009.
"Being an active member of his community, Mr. Brown was well-known, well-liked and connected to many township residents and supervisors," the lawsuit said.
During mutual aid agreement negotiations, Brown felt he was included not because he was chief, but because he was needed to push the "political agenda" of the merger proposal.
Brown supported an increase of $25 to $100 an hour for the township to pay for police services, with township officials agreeing.
Tucci at that time said if the township wanted borough police support, it would need to merge with the borough, "all or nothing."
Brown was shocked as he did not personally endorse the merger and had been expecting the mutual aid agreement to be settled.
Tucci later spoke to Brown privately, asking him, as a township citizen, to personally endorse the merger and gather support from fellow residents.
Brown refused and told Tucci he could get fired if he engaged in political conduct relating to the merger, according to the Pennsylvania Municipal code.
In May 2010, borough council sent the police department a memo saying Slippery Rock police could not assist township residents unless the Pennsylvania State Police had also been contacted.
Tucci later stormed into Brown's office, angrily accusing him of "playing games" with the memo. Brown was not to send borough police to the township unless a state trooper was on scene first, Tucci said.
Brown said the memo didn't indicate a state trooper had to be present. Tucci said the memo's interpretation means a state trooper must be physically on scene first.
"Mr. Brown then expressed his personal belief that using the safety of township residents as leverage in the merger proposal was 'a very bad way to do business,' " the lawsuit said.
Brown previously overheard Miller and Tucci say the state police response to 911 calls in the township often took a long time, so the township would soon wish they had "played ball," or agreed to the merger.
Brown in September 2010 was asked to attend one of council's executive sessions, the first time he was required to do so.
He told council he'd follow their directions regarding the police department, but he personally felt council was "putting a price on people's safety" and didn't agree with using the public's safety as leverage in the merger proposal.
Brown again emphasized he couldn't engage in political conduct.
On Oct. 7, 2010, Brown was conducting a training class on close-quarter shooting at a local shooting range. While he had a student's weapon disabled by using a new technique,
Brown briefly stepped "down range," meaning he placed himself between the student and the range target to demonstrate the new technique.
Patrolman Jason Bennett witnessed the incident and several weeks later Bennett's wife saw Tucci at a local store and told him what happened.
Tucci, with Miller's sanctioning, immediately began an investigation, which Brown considers a "mere pretext" to the pair's true intention to remove him from the police force because he refused to personally endorse the merger.
They wanted to silence Brown's opposition to endangering the safety of township residents to further council's merger goal.
Stanger assisted with Brown's termination process and she was aware of the true motivation behind it, evidenced by her meeting with the Bennetts at their home, where most of the discussion focused on Brown's refusal to support the merger.
Brown on Nov. 2, 2010, testified during a Loudermill hearing that he was properly trained to demonstrate the new technique at the shooting range and that no one was in danger.
Council on Dec. 7, 2010, voted to fire Brown as advised by Stanger, Tucci and Miller.
Brown appealed his case to the Slippery Rock Civil Service Commission, who said they didn't have any authority to reduce or change his termination because it was a form of discipline for violating borough policy.
But the commission recognized Brown's punishment was "oddly disproportionate" to the violation. Commission members said if they were charged with disciplining Brown, his punishment "may not have been as severe."
Brown's lawsuit alleges First Amendment retaliation and wrongful termination. He will continue to suffer loss of wages, loss of reputation, loss of career, depression, legal fees, emotional harm and humiliation.
He's seeking an unspecified amount of monetary damages.
According to Allied News files, Brown works for Butler County as a part-time deputy sheriff.
Published Jan. 16, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.