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posted: 10/24/2012 3:49 PM

Judge: Des Plaines right to fire off-duty cop who insulted protester

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A federal judge recently ruled that the city of Des Plaines was right to fire a police officer in 2008 for using profanities and insulting anti-abortion protesters while off duty.

Dick Lalowski, who worked as a police officer in Des Plaines from 1994 until 2008, was fired after the city's fire and police board found him guilty of harassing protesters.

Lalowski later filed a federal lawsuit trying to get his job back claiming the city violated his First Amendment right to free speech.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge James Zagel wrote officer Lalowski's conduct was not only embarrassing for the police department, but also undermined the public's confidence in the police force. Zagel determined Lalowski's "profane and insulting" speech was not protected.

Lalowski could not immediately be reached for comment Wednesday.

Des Plaines City Manager Mike Bartholomew was satisfied with the outcome of the lawsuit, which was handled by the city's risk management pool, Municipal Insurance Cooperative Association.

"We do expect our police officers to conduct themselves professionally on and off duty," Bartholomew said. "It goes to a matter of public trust."

Bartholomew said government employees, especially public safety officers, are held to a higher standard.

"When you decide to be a sworn police officer, you are a sworn police officer 24/7, 365 (days a year)," Bartholomew said. "The overwhelming majority of our officers accept that responsibility. The ones who don't give the many a black eye."

According to the lawsuit, Lalowski first stopped at the protest in uniform to tell protesters not to block the entrance of the clinic and threatened them with arrest if they did not obey. He later returned in plain clothes after his shift ended to confront the female protesters.

In his suit, Lalowski argued that he felt a 6-foot-tall photo of an aborted fetus held by the protesters was too graphic and could offend a woman who had just had a miscarriage. He also admitted to calling a protester "a fat (expletive) cow" and a "sinner of gluttony" because she was overweight with the intention of illustrating that "the truth sometimes hurts."

"I find that defendants had a legitimate overriding interest in prohibiting their officers from using such profane and insulting language toward members of the public," Zagel wrote in his judgment. "Public trust in the police is critical to effective law enforcement and it is seriously eroded when police officers are perceived as abusing their authority or behaving unprofessionally. The public is far less likely to cooperate with law enforcement if they anticipate they will not be treated with respect -- or worse, subject to verbal abuse. It is difficult to imagine more abusive language than calling someone a 'fat (expletive) cow.'"

Zagel wrote Lalowski's conduct was not only offensive, but also "instilled fear" in the demonstrators who testified to being scared and intimidated and called police for help.

"It is difficult to imagine anything more damaging to defendants' legitimate interests (or basic social order) than a citizenry that fears its own police force," Zagel wrote.

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