Morristown is on the hook for $1.7 million in damages to whistleblowing Police Officer Keith Hudson because of “incomprehensible testimony” by a captain, Police Chief Pete Demnitz said after this week’s verdict.
A civil jury in Superior Court on Tuesday unanimously agreed Hudson was busted from the detective bureau by Demnitz in 2015 as payback for reporting suspicions of the chief’s “double-dipping” to authorities.
Mayor Tim Dougherty’s office “strongly disagrees” with the damages, is “actively working to dispute the decision,” and is evaluating “all available options” regarding the case, according to a statement.
In his own statement, and in an interview with Morristown Green, Demnitz blamed the verdict on Capt. Michael Buckley’s turn in the witness chair. He also chided Buckley for endorsing Hudson’s performance.
“For the record,” Demnitz said in a text message, “this case was decided on the incomprehensible testimony of Captain Buckley. I do not know how it is that he forgot the multiple times he approached me about then-Detective Hudson’s obstinate and difficult behavior.”
Buckley, a 23-year veteran of the force, responded: “I don’t comment on personnel matters, especially since they’re ongoing. I took the stand. I gave my testimony. I don’t lie.”
Defending his side jobs, Demnitz asserted the real motivation for Hudson’s whistleblower lawsuit was resentment over his getting first crack at these plum gigs, a seniority perk that predated Demnitz’s promotion to chief in 2004.
Asked if he is mulling retirement in the wake of the ruling, Demnitz said he is discussing future plans with his family.
Yet he voiced confidence in his ability to continue running the police bureau. His locker is next to Hudson’s, and he described their relations as cordial and polite — and he expects the same to hold true with the other officers from the trial.
A Morristown native, Demnitz is a proponent of community policing who has been a familiar face for more than three decades. He said he believes residents and business people generally appreciate his running of the department.
The difference between him and Hudson, he said, is how they view the police force.
Hudson regarded the department as “dysfunctional” from the time he joined in 2005, according to testimony by a psychologist.
On Demnitz’ first day as a cop, “I thought I had the coolest job on the face of the earth. And after 35 years I still feel that way.”
They also differ about the Secret Service, the chief said.
One year after Hudson complained to the Morris County Prosecutor’s Office about Demnitz, the chief reassigned him to patrol duty. It could not have been retaliation, the chief testified, because he only learned of Hudson’s lawsuit from a news account weeks after the transfer. He suspected another officer as the whistleblower, he claimed.
No, Hudson was demoted for balking at investigating an armed man arrested by the Secret Service inside Headquarters Plaza in July 2015, according to Demnitz.
Hudson’s version: He worked overtime on the gunman case. His concerns that day were about the Secret Service; he was critical of how it handled a prior investigation.
Demnitz told Morristown Green he enjoys working with federal authorities.
“The President of the United States comes into my town,” he said, referring to Morristown Airport. “Whatever you think about him, it’s really cool working with the Secret Service and the military.”
‘I WISH CAMERAS WERE IN PLACE’
Demnitz told the jury he transferred Hudson because of two things Capt. Buckley told him on the day of the Headquarters Plaza arrest.
One item was Hudson’s supposed reluctance to join that investigation. Additionally, the chief said Buckley informed him of an incident from early in 2014. Hudson was sent home for yelling at Lt. Stuart Greer during an investigation of a Lincoln Street drug shooting.
But Buckley’s testimony differed: He did not learn of that February 2014 disciplinary action until 12 days after Hudson’s demotion.
“I do not know how it is that he forgot all that he told me in my office on July 29  including Hudson being sent home by Lt. Greer for conduct related to the Lincoln Street shooting,” Demnitz texted.
During the trial Buckley and Greer both testified Hudson was a good detective and they disagreed with his removal. Buckley said he could have handled the matter.
Then why, Demnitz texted, did Buckley need to seek the chief’s “guidance” on the day of the Headquarters Plaza arrest?
“I also do not understand how one attaches the label of ‘exemplary’ to a person when that person is known to have yelled at a supervisor in the street during a very dynamic situation involving a motor vehicle stop of a vehicle containing suspects in a shooting resulting in that exemplary detective being sent home ‘to cool off,'” Demnitz continued.
Noting that all Morristown police now wear body cameras, he added:
“I wish cameras were in place in my office and all conversations between Captain Buckley and I [were] recorded.”
Demnitz said he also wondered if any mobile data recordings exist from the motor vehicle stop in the Lincoln Street investigation — and why nobody told him about the incident for a year-and-a-half.
“Whatever testimony you embrace, it is unbelievable that I was not informed of Officer Hudson’s actions that day until months later. If I am to make good decisions involving personnel I should be receiving timely, accurate and truthful information,” the chief told Morristown Green.
Town officials appear to have their own concerns about police decisions. The administration plans to hire a public safety director to oversee police, fire and emergency management.
“The Town relies on the Chief’s recommendations in personnel matters in the Police Department. We expect everyone to be treated fairly and are concerned by some of the information that came out at the trial,” Mayor Dougherty said in a statement.
At the same time, “the tenor of this case does not reflect the core of the Morristown Police Department, nor its hard working men and women,” the mayor said.
“I EXERCISED MY RIGHT TO TAKE IT’
So what about all those extra-duty jobs?
On 43 dates spanning seven months in 2014, Demnitz worked 62 freelance security jobs for companies such as JCP&L, PSE&G and Verizon, as well as the Morristown & Township Library, the Morristown Neighborhood House and Morristown Medical Center.
On one weekday, he worked three extra-duty jobs, according to trial evidence.
While the Prosecutor found no wrongdoing, the town subsequently barred the chief from working extra jobs during regular business hours.
Demnitz reiterated what he said at trial: He is on-call 24-7. He puts in more than 40 hours a week, he said, often working nights, weekends and special events like the St. Patrick’s Parade.
When residents complained about rowdyism from downtown bars a few years ago, he said, he often joined late-night patrols.
“I stood shoulder to shoulder with Keith Hudson and Eric Petr, till 2 in the morning sometimes,” Demnitz said.
Officer Petr helped Hudson gather details about Demnitz’ extra jobs, but was not part of the whistleblower lawsuit.
Demnitz said working flexible police hours enables him to monitor performance of different shifts. And when he’s working freelance jobs, he said, people often bring town matters to his attention.
“I do not believe anybody really thought I was committing a crime,” Demnitz said.
Rather, he said he got targeted for side work to which he legally was entitled. “I exercised my right to take it” more than other chiefs, he said.
“I got divorced. I wanted to maintain a lifestyle for my ex-wife and three children. I did not want them to sell the house and have to move,” Demnitz said. One of his children is graduating from college; two more are entering next year, he said.
He still works some side jobs, but voluntarily placed himself into a rotation that sometimes enables junior officers to choose ahead of him, he said.
Despite the verdict, Demnitz said he does not anticipate rough sailing inside the department.
“We will be professional and do our job,” he said. “We will put this in the past. I’ve already done it.”
If he has any regrets, he’s keeping them to himself.
“I have had a nice career and am generally happy with it,” Demnitz said.