A police officer with moral courage gets vindicated by the Second Circuit

Matthews v. City of New York, No. 13-2915-cv (2d Cir. Feb. 26, 2015).

This case is reminiscent of the story of Adrian Schoolcraft, which The Village Voice covered here and This American Life here. This case, like that one, involves a New York police officer who reported a “quota system” in which police officers were required to conduct so many stop-and-frisks, make so many arrests, and so on. 

Here, Craig Matthews reported the existence of the quota system to his precinct’s commanding officer, saying that (surprise, surprise) it “was having an adverse effect on the precinct’s relationship with the community” and that it forced police officers to abandon their better judgment. As a result of his complaints, he says, he faced a campaign of retaliation from his bosses.

A public employee is protected by the First Amendment when he speaks on a matter of public concern—as long as he speaks as a “citizen” rather than an employee. The question in this appeal is whether Matthews spoke as a citizen when he complained about the quota system. The district court thought not. 

The Second Circuit disagrees. It holds that because Matthews’s practical, day-to-day duties didn’t require him to provide feedback on precinct policy. While police officers are required to report corruption or misconduct, a quota system was not itself a violation of NYPD policy. Plus, Matthews wasn’t reporting on individual instances of misconduct—he was opining on a broad policy. Any citizen could go into the precinct to complain about the quota system. That’s what Matthews did. The district court’s grant of summary judgment to the city is reversed.