A Morristown police captain who testified against Chief Pete Demnitz in a whistleblower case last year has accused the chief of perjury and defamation, in a lawsuit that also accuses the town and police bureau of turning a blind eye to the chief’s alleged retaliation against him.
Capt. Michael Buckley claims Demnitz has blamed him for last year’s unanimous jury verdict that awarded $1.7 million in damages to Officer Keith Hudson, who successfully argued that Demnitz demoted him from detective for questioning the chief’s freelance work.
Filed in Superior Court under the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act, Buckley’s civil suit paints a picture of a dysfunctional police force where secretaries are bullied and a Marine Corps veteran–Buckley–has been warned to avoid the chief for his own safety.
Demnitz did not respond Friday to a request for comment. He has been on paid administrative leave from his $158,000 job since December, for undisclosed reasons.
The chief’s fitness for duty is being evaluated, according to the lawsuit. His leave was ordered just weeks after Morristown hired a public safety director to oversee police, fire and emergency services.
“The claims against the town are factually inaccurate and are frivolous. We will deal with it accordingly,” Mayor Tim Dougherty said of Buckley’s lawsuit on Friday.
“My client stands by the allegations and looks forward to his day in court,” said Buckley’s lawyer, Paul Foreman of Roseland.
Demnitz, the police bureau, the town, and unspecified corporations and individuals are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
The chief “blatantly lied and defamed” Buckley last May on the witness stand, and again shortly after the three-week trial when he blasted the captain’s “incomprehensible testimony,” the suit charges.
“This would be the very beginning of a torturous scheme of retaliation” by Demnitz, a scheme “in which those in a position to prevent (it) merely turned a blind eye or tacitly acquiesced in his despicable behavior.”
The suit alleges Buckley has suffered emotional trauma and economic harm.
Buckley frequently was called on short notice, often on weekends, to serve as acting chief when Demnitz worked side jobs or vacationed. But the captain said he never requested full extra pay to which he was entitled– even when forced to cancel family events and work on his birthday.
Then, when Demnitz was placed on leave, Buckley was passed over for acting chief, subjecting him to another round of public humiliation, the suit states.
Still on leave, Demnitz even had the “audacity” to complain to the town council that he was underpaid compared to Buckley.
Buckley, a Morristown cop for 24 years, seeks damages, back pay, “front pay…personal injury and exacerbation of personal injury” and “negative tax consequences as a result of any jury verdict.”
A DISPUTED DEMOTION
This spiral was set in motion when Keith Hudson got demoted in 2015, about a year after he reported suspicions that Demnitz was working security- and traffic gigs on town time.
The Morris County Prosecutor’s Office found no wrongdoing by Demnitz. The chief testified Hudson was transferred for allegedly balking to investigate a man apprehended in July 2015 at Headquarters Plaza wearing a bulletproof vest and toting guns in a backpack.
But the jury believed Hudson–and Buckley, whose testimony did not corroborate Demnitz’ “harsh critique” of Hudson. The town settled with Hudson for $1.15 million in March 2019.
Demnitz had testified Buckley was on board with transferring Hudson back to patrol duty.
During the Headquarters Plaza incident, according to the chief, Buckley also informed him about alleged insubordination by Hudson during a 2014 investigation of a shooting.
Buckley’s suit asserts he was unaware of that 2014 episode as the Headquarters Plaza situation unfolded. His court papers include an e-mail from December 2015 suggesting Demnitz’ recollection of their conversations about the insubordination was fuzzy.
“This email evidences that (Demnitz) did not even recall for certain when he spoke” to Buckley about either incident, proof the chief had lied in court and was “grossly negligent” in his duties, the suit claims.
The police bureau is in a “state of complete disorder due to the lack of control and/or discipline of an aloof Chief of Police” incapable of “recalling details of conversations he had with his own Captain relative to shootings” in town, the suit continues.
To “retaliate and humiliate” Buckley, Demnitz snubbed him in February 2018 when handing out medals to detectives. “You are not getting one,” Demnitz pointedly told the captain, who was made to stand through the ceremony, the suit maintains.
‘I NEED MY REPUTATION RESTORED’
After last May’s trial, Buckley reached out to town Attorney Vij Pawar and town Administrator Jillian Barrick with concerns about an intimidating call from Demnitz, and about the chief’s statements about him to Morristown Green and the Daily Record.
Buckley asked Barrick for protection from workplace harassment, stating via email that he doubted he could be in the same building with Demnitz.
“I need my reputation restored immediately and protections as the actions made by the chief have influenced personnel in the department to stay away from me. This has been extremely difficult and my phone has not stopped ringing since the chief slandered my name calling me a liar,” Buckley told Barrick.
Buckley’s entreaties were ignored, subjecting him to “public humiliation” and having his character “irreparably defamed for telling the truth at a civil trial.”
Barrick declined to comment and Pawar did not respond to a request to comment.
Michael Corcoran Jr., the new public safety director, even warned Buckley to avoid police headquarters for his own safety, if Demnitz “found a reason to enter” after being placed on leave in December for a fitness-for-duty evaluation, the suit states.
The poisonous atmosphere affected others, too, in the police bureau, according to the suit.
When the chief’s secretary filed a hostile workplace complaint, Demnitz told her to “mind her own business if she didn’t want to end up like Buckley,” the suit claims.
Demnitz, meanwhile, has filed grievances against the public safety director and the town alleging insubordination by Buckley, according to Buckley’s lawsuit.
Promoted to chief in 2004, Demnitz is a 36-year veteran of the force who prides himself on community policing and is considered an authority on crowd control.
Buckley served in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm, and recently completed an undergraduate degree in public safety administration at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
Since joining the police force in 1996, Buckley has worked in the patrol, investigative and services units, where he has received several commendations. A captain since 2014, he has overseen internal affairs operations.
In December, Buckley was passed over for acting chief in favor of Capt. Darnell Richardson. Jillian Barrick, the town administrator, declined to elaborate, calling it a personnel matter.