Jury finds police retaliated against sergeant who spoke out

Monday, February 23, 1998

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — Syracuse police officials acted out of vengeance when they fired a former sergeant who testified against his commanders in a misconduct case, a federal court jury says.

Mark Balduzzi will receive $816,526 in compensatory and punitive damages, according to the jury, which determined Balduzzi had been deprived of his right to free speech by his firing in February 1996.

Balduzzi had argued that he was fired in retaliation for testifying before the Citizen Review Board, a panel created to hear complaints against city police. Most city police officers—backed by their union and commanders—have refused to testify.

“It’s a vindication for myself and for a number of other police officers who have tried to maintain their integrity,” Balduzzi, 40, said after the Feb. 19 verdict.

“There’s been a mindset that just because they (police officials) don’t like you, you’re out,” said Balduzzi, a 14-year veteran. “I don’t think that’s fair. This jury’s verdict has just sent a message: `We want police accountability.”‘

The jury awarded Balduzzi $776,526 to compensate him for the salary and pension he would have received if he had not been illegally fired.

Jurors awarded another $30,000 in punitive damages against Deputy Chief Daniel Boyle, who was in charge of Balduzzi’s patrol division, and $10,000 in punitive damages against Lt. Michael Kerwin, who was Balduzzi’s direct supervisor.

The jury also found Police Chief James T. Foody responsible for Balduzzi’s firing but it did not award any damages against him.

City officials said they would appeal the verdict.

Mayor Roy Bernardi issued a statement in support of the police department.

The city agreed to cover the cost of the punitive damages. Most of the money will come out of the city’s general budget, said Jim Parenti, the mayor’s spokesman.

“It’s a very difficult financial matter for the city given our current fiscal condition,” Parenti said.

In 1996, Balduzzi accused two of his commanders of toning down a sex-related complaint against a retired city police officer. An Onondaga County grand jury cleared the commanders of any wrongdoing, said District Attorney William Fitzpatrick.

Within two days of testifying before the CRB, Balduzzi was transferred to the night shift, where he said he was harassed by Kerwin. Four months later, he was suspended for allegedly threatening a city laborer and was subsequently fired.

During the four-day trial, police administrators testified that their decision to fire Balduzzi was based on 10 years of misconduct allegations against him.

“He’s not defending his First Amendment rights. He’s defending a career of mistakes, bad conduct and poor judgment,” city attorney Joseph Pacheo warned jurors in his closing argument.

Balduzzi filed grievances over all the misconduct allegations. Those grievances are pending before an arbitrator.