Police Officer Sues Department for Prohibiting Lunchtime Churchgoing
NASHUA, N.H. (AP) _ Officer Fred Williams thinks his attendance in church shows the public that policemen aren’t like their often-violent television counterparts. But his superiors think when Williams spends his Sunday lunch breaks in church, he’s not doing his job.
The New Hampshire Labor Relations Board will decide Thursday whether Williams is being harassed by officials who are angry that he helped start a police union or if he simply broke department rules.
Earlier this year, Williams spent four 20-minute Sunday lunch breaks at the First Church of Nashua. In April, police officials decided he should be more accessible to the public during his break, and prohibited him from spending that time in church.
Williams, 25, believes the Nashua police department is singling him out because of his activity in Local 464 of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, the union he helped form last December. He filed an unfair labor practice charge against the Nashua Police Commission.
Williams, who has been on the force two years, said he spent the breaks standing in the back of the church with his police radio on softly. Once he was called on an emergency and had no problem responding, he said.
But police Chief William Quigley said it’s not enough to keep a radio on. Being available means being where someone can find a policeman quickly, he said, and that may not be true in a church.
City attorney Steven Bolton said there was no discrimination.
″The rule says during your eight-hour tour of duty, you’re on all eight hours. You have a 20-minute period to take a meal. Other than that, you’re not allowed to enter a public place other than for police purposes,″ Bolton said.
Williams’ fellow officers said they also do things besides eat during their breaks.
Five-year veteran Bill Barlow said he spent one lunch break at a park where his son was celebrating his birthday. Other policemen said they visit their wives or watch their children play in local parks.
Always, the officers said, they keep their radios on for emergency calls.
″There’s never been a problem,″ said Officer Scott Childs, union vice president. ″It’s not specified in the contract. ... It’s left to common sense.″
Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the National Association of Police Chiefs, said the issue involves church and state.
″It’s very important that the state doesn’t get mixed up in religious activites,″ Arenberg said. ″Are they interfering in his religious activities?″
Quigley said the issue is rules, not church and state or unions.
The union’s lawyer, Harry Dougherty, said the union believes the action is ″punitive and based on union activity.″
″We think they chose this because Fred was active in the union and they were looking for a way to harass him and discourage other officers from getting active,″ Dougherty said.
Nashua’s 125-person force has about 110 officers, Williams said, and about 60 are union members.
Childs said he was elected union vice president in January and a day later was fired. He was charged with violating several rules, but the Labor Relations Board ordered him rehired. The city appealed, lost again, and is taking the case to state Supreme Court.
Williams testified at Childs’ hearing. Bolton said there is no connection between the cases.
Officer Douglas Sparks, a union organizer who’s been on the force four years, said that Williams attending church ″shows you’re involved with your community and you’re showing that you’re someone who cares.″
Since April, Williams has been attending church on Sundays when he doesn’t work, about once a month.
″You miss it. I’ve always been active in church,″ said Williams, adding he’d be willing to lose 20 minutes of his pay to attend.
″We have such negative contact with the public. TV shows the police in a very violent light,″ Williams said. ″I think when you walk in a church people must say, oh, that’s nice. Especially older people. They realize life hasn’t changed that much. Cops are real people.″