Princeton Administrator Robert W. Bruschi, confirmed on Friday that seven Princeton Police Department officers have filed a lawsuit against the Princeton Police Department, the municipality of Princeton, and former Police Chief David J.Dudeck.
The suit by officers Sharon Papp, Steven Riccitello, Daniel Chitren, Carol Raymond, Christopher P. Donnelly, Michael Bender, and Christopher M. Quaste was filed in Mercer County Superior Court on August 28. It alleges that the officers, all of whom were members of the former Borough police department before consolidation, were “discriminated against and harassed” based upon “their gender, sexual orientation, and disability.”
The officers are demanding a trial by jury. They are suing for compensatory damages for emotional stress, pain and suffering, lost promotion, employment, wages and benefits, as well as attorney’s fees and punitive damages.
The suit alleges that from 2008 until he went on a leave of absence this spring, Mr. Dudeck engaged in a continuing pattern of discrimination, and created a hostile work environment. It cites some 40 incidents in which Mr. Dudeck allegedly used crude sexual language, made crude gestures, referred to officers’ genitals or asked them about their sex lives or sexuality.
The many incidents also include one in which the police chief challenged an officer after four students at the Hun School of Princeton were charged with marijuana possession.
Since 1999, Mr. Dudeck has been head football coach of the Hun School, his alma mater. Prior to that, he was head coach of Princeton High School from 1995 to 1998, and associate head coach from 1989 to 1995.
He has been placed on administrative leave from the Hun School. “In the best interests of our students, pending the resolution of these allegations, Mr. Dudeck has been placed on administrative leave from his position as head football coach, effective immediately,” said the school’s headmaster Jonathan G. Brougham in a written statement. “While we are not in a position to assess or comment upon third party allegations or litigation, the -nature of the recent accusations against Mr. Dudeck are of great concern.”
The suit also alleges that the Princeton Police Department and the Town of Princeton “aided and abetted” Mr. Dudeck’s discriminatory conduct by negligently hiring him as chief despite knowing of his behavior and by failing to discipline him. The officers claim that there was collusion to hide the police chief’s discrimination and that after Mr. Dudeck left the department on leave, they were improperly monitored by a police lieutenant and other informants.
Mr. Dudeck joined the Princeton Borough Police Department in 1983. In 2009, when Borough Chief Anthony Federico died suddenly, Mr. Dudeck succeeded him. Mr. Dudeck was appointed as chief of the Police Department for the consolidated Princeton on January 1, this year.
The suit comes after the former police chief faced allegations of administrative misconduct earlier this year. He officially retired from his post on Sept. 1, a month earlier than expected. The earlier allegations were made in a complaint filed by the Princeton chapter of the Policemen’s Benevolent Association (PBA) Local 130. They were not made public and no complainants were named. An agreement between Mr. Dudeck and the police union, in which the former agreed to retire, obviated an investigation into the chief’s conduct by the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office.
“The lawsuit comes as no surprise to anyone on the Council,” said Mayor Liz Lempert at a press briefing Monday. “It came up as a risk when we discussed the possible retirement of Chief Dudeck with the PBA. Obviously we could not ask people to sign away their constitutional rights but we are disappointed that it has come to this,” she said.
Mr. Bruschi said that with the PBA-brokered agreement, “we hoped to get the issue behind us. “It was hoped that the agreement would allow everyone involved to move on,” said Ms. Lempert.
“We hope to focus on the future of the department. I am proud of the work that members of the department have done this year,” said Ms. Lempert. “They are down in number of employees and yet they are doing more with traffic and safe neighborhood units.”
Asked later in an email exchange if it was true that the earlier agreement between the PBA and Mr. Dudeck included a provision that would bar future litigation by officers in the department, Mr. Bruschi said that he was unable to comment. “The previous matter was being driven by a concern from the PBA and not by specific officers,” he said.
Since Mr. Dudeck’s departure, Captain Nick Sutter has been in charge.
Asked about the department post-Dudeck, Mr. Sutter said that everyone was “making a very conscious and dedicated effort to increase communication and to create an atmosphere of openness.”
“We are engaging all ranks of officers in weekly meetings and I have also met with all employees by department to discuss operational and other issues in an effort to improve the quality of everyone’s working conditions. We have encouraged an atmosphere of trust between our sergeants, corporals (first line supervisors), and officers by empowering our supervisors to create a team-oriented approach which will hopefully create bonds that will in turn create the trust needed for officers to bring forth any complaints or grievances,” said Mr. Sutter. “I consider our overall management and leadership philosophy to be one of flexibility and openness to change which is absolutely essential for an organization encountering what we have in the last year.”
Mr. Sutter reported that he was also meeting weekly with PBA President Ben Gering to discuss “morale, any complaints or problems, and all other relevant issues.” He hopes to get the thoughts and opinions of the entire department, to proactively address problems before they are encountered, and to engage all employees in the mission of the department.
Asked for comment on the responsibilities of running a police department that includes police officers of different ages, genders, and perhaps sexual orientations, Mr. Sutter wrote: “I and all of our employees are extremely cognizant of the importance of diversity and tolerance. We have worked diligently at promoting diversity through a comprehensive recruiting plan that is designed to create a department that is reflective, in diversity, of the community in which we serve. We take very seriously our responsibility of promoting tolerance in a department made up of men and women from all different backgrounds. In my opinion, education and training is a key component in promoting tolerance and understanding of others. To that end we conduct training in ethics and cultural sensitivity (this was done in the two former departments and is being done in the consolidated department) and are planning training that will develop the team oriented approach needed in an organization like ours.”
The town has hired the Rogers Group of consultants to analyze and report on the police force and is looking at alternative leadership models, such as having a civilian administrator. The report is due by the end of October.
Mr. Bruschi expressed concern for the morale of the police department. “From a service delivery standpoint I think it is important to say that while the legal action will be another distraction to the organization it will not impede the delivery of any public safety services.” he said.