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Outspoken Detroit Police Officer is Muzzled

Detroit Free Press January 27, 2005

Freedom of speech doesn’t always apply to those working in a paramilitary organization like the Detroit Police Department.

Sgt. David Malhalab is finding out the hard way.

A 23-year veteran, Malhalab soon will begin serving a 6-day unpaid suspension for talking to a television reporter last summer about controversy surrounding Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s chief of staff, Christine Beatty.

His media exposure was nothing new. For his entire career, Malhalab has been both complaining about and sticking up for the Police Department to reporters. He even issues his own press releases. No chief, not even the hypersensitive Jerry Oliver, had suspended him for exercising his First Amendment rights.

But when Ella Bully-Cummings took over as chief in November 2003, she reinstated a policy requiring officers to receive permission from the department’s public information section before talking to the news media.

Malhalab received the suspension for ignoring rules or orders and discrediting the city or department executives.

His union lawyer advised him to plead guilty Monday to the departmental charges, insisting he had no case. Malhalab grudgingly took the advice.

Attorney Mike Rataj, who represents the Detroit Police Lieutenants and Sergeants Association, declined comment.

“I think it’s important for police officers to stand up for each other, not only within each other but in the media,” Malhalab, 54, said Tuesday. Malhalab had spoken with former WDIV-TV (Channel 4) reporter Mike Lewis on July 29 about accusations that Beatty asked two Detroit officers, “Do you know who the (obscenity) I am?” after they pulled her over June 21 on suspicion of speeding.

Kilpatrick and Bully-Cummings had defended Beatty and said the officers tried to set her up, which irked Malhalab.

“I said it was outrageous that Detroit police officers should be intimidated from doing their jobs,” he said.

Lewis, now an interim director of the Oakland University Journalism Department, said the interview lasted about 30 seconds.

“He has been speaking his mind for as long as I’ve known him, and he’s always spoken about a better Detroit Police Department,” Lewis said.

Malhalab acknowledged that he has a lengthy disciplinary record that includes violations for misplacing his weapon and leaving the job without permission when his father was sick.

“My lawyer told me that I did not have a leg to stand on and advised me to plead because of my disciplinary record,” Malhalab said.

In the past, municipal workers have sued over freedom of speech issues and won.

In 2002, Detroit officials rescinded a similar gag order after AFSCME Local 207 sued the Public Lighting and Water and Sewerage departments.

In 2003, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that a Frenchtown Charter Township ordinance that prohibited firefighters from speaking to the news media was unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan had filed the lawsuit on behalf of the township firefighters’ union.

“Generally, government employees have protection by First Amendment,” said Kary Moss, ACLU executive director.

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