Judge temporarily blocks suspension of Lafayette police officer

Interim Lafayette Police Chief Scott Morgan is being sued by one his veteran officers, who says the chief violated his and the local union's constitutional rights. Photo by Travis Gauthier

The gist: A district court judge today issued a temporary restraining order blocking the Lafayette Police Department’s effort to discipline a veteran K-9 officer for social media activity the officer claims was done in his capacity as president of the local police union.

Cpl. David Stanley filed suit today. In his lawsuit against the Lafayette Police Department and interim Chief Scott Morgan, Stanley says he was given a two-week suspension, without pay, for two social media posts from earlier this year. The first was a video he posted on the Police Association of Lafayette’s public Facebook page in mid-May. The video was created to oppose HB 577, which changed promotion policies for municipal fire and police civil service employees in the Broussard, Carencro, Scott and Youngsville police departments. It was signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards and went into effect Aug. 1. The video argued that the new law would change the system for the worse, opening the door to bias and discrimination in hiring. In the second instance, Stanley says on May 18 he again posted on the union’s public Facebook page, this time about a traffic stop LPD conducted on I-10, which led to the arrest of a man wanted in Florida and the confiscation of large amounts of cocaine and cash. 

Stanley maintains that the second Facebook post was highly complimentary of the entire police department (this May 18 post supports his assertion). “All of the facts and information in the post were taken from freely available public records such as affidavits of probable cause and arrest warrants,” according to the lawsuit. 

Four days later, Stanley was informed of an internal investigation into this conduct. According to the suit, he was investigated for violations of the PD’s social media, media relations and public statements policies. In late May, attorneys for the Louisiana Union of Police Associations, the umbrella organization for municipal unions in the state, sent the interim chief a cease-and-desist order, claiming he had commenced an unlawful investigation.

Cpl. David Stanley says his K-9, “Officer Titan,” was taken from his home on Aug. 12 in retaliation for social media posts he made as president of the local police union. (Image courtesy Lafayette Police Union Facebook page)

On Aug. 11 Stanley was notified that the case against him had been sustained and that he would be put on leave Aug. 23. Stanley’s canine partner, “Officer Titan,” was removed from his home, the dog’s designated residence, by Sgt. Ryan Judice on Aug. 12. Stanley claims efforts are underway to replace him in the K-9 unit, saying a transfer from K-9 to uniform patrol would be a demotion “in substance.”

The matter before District Judge Thomas Duplantier today was a partial victory. While Duplantier granted the temporary restraining order to stay the two-week suspension, he denied a second TRO to stay Stanley’s transfer out of the K-9 unit, finding no irreparable harm, Police Association of Lafayette attorney Allyson Melancon tells The Current.

Sudduth & Associates, the same Lake Charles-based firm that sent the cease and desist letter in late May, represents Stanley in the civil matter before Duplantier. A hearing was set for Sept. 1.

Stanley’s free speech is protected, the petition argues. While LPD can regulate the political action and social media of its civil service employees, it has no authority to regulate such activity of union officers and members, according to the lawsuit, which cites a 2017 Third Circuit Court ruling. Labor unions can participate in a wide range of political activities. “Cpl. Stanley’s actions and statements made solely in his protected capacity as union president are of course protected by the First Amendment. Therefore, this investigation of Cpl. Stanley because of his protected speech, and its subsequent discipline is unlawful, reckless, and purely retaliatory,” the lawsuit reads. 

The lawsuit claims the LPD knows better. In 2018, then City-Parish Attorney Paul Escott, now an assistant c-p attorney, told a lawyer for Sheriff Mark Garber that neither Lafayette Consolidated Government nor the LPD has the authority to regulate activities of the union, according to the suit. The sheriff’s complaint about the union’s activities concerned its vocal opposition to Garber’s efforts to pass a sales tax. “After review of numerous sources of information, policies, and legal authorities, we simply do not agree that the publication puts law enforcement officials or the public at an increased risk of harm, nor will we take any steps that would violate our employees’ rights protected by state and federal law to their freedom of association, their right to speak on matters of public concern, or their right to participate in a union,” Escott wrote. “Further, we have no intention to, in any way, interfere with union activity simply because it is viewed by another agency as being ‘politically motivated.’”

Stanley says the PD’s action is retaliatory. “These actions are done for one reason, and one reason only; to send a message [to union members],” the lawsuit reads. “[I]f you speak out against the administration, if you oppose what the government supports, this is what will happen to you. You will be suspended, demoted, ostracized, and targeted. You will be forced to defend your source of income for yourself and your family.”

Morgan declined to discuss the case. “Because this matter is still under appeal I am unable to comment on it,” he told The Current in an emailed response, saying Stanley is appealing his suspension. However, attorney Melancon says she has yet to file a notice of appeal to the Lafayette Municipal Fire & Police Civil Service Board regarding the disciplinary action taken against her client. That course of action would be separate from today’s court filing. 

Stanley has resigned as president of the union. The career officer, whose wife is pregnant with the couple’s third child, says he stepped down to devote his time to trying to save his career with the LPD. This is the first time he has been disciplined since joining the force in 2009, Stanley says in the suit. He is asking for a preliminary injunction against the department and Morgan, that the case be dismissed and records of the investigation destroyed. He wants his sick pay back, along with attorneys’ fees.