Since arriving as Miami Beach's new police chief in 2014, Dan Oates has mostly steered clear of the scandals that plagued his predecessors in the high-profile department, aside from the odd off-duty pay raise and fatal shooting during Art Basel.
In Aurora, Colorado, though, where Oates spent nearly a decade as chief before decamping to South Beach, the city is facing a court battle over his time in charge. A federal judge there recently ordered a jury trial over allegations that Oates demoted a top cop in the department in retaliation after he'd publicly disagreed with Oates in court testimony.
"The bottom line is Chief Oates retaliated against my client in violation of his First Amendment speech rights," says Don Sisson, the Aurora attorney leading the lawsuit. "We believe it's a very strong case."
Oates' lawyer, though, notes the judge tossed an effort to sue the chief as an individual; he's named on the lawsuit only in his official capacity. "The city is prepared to vigorously defend its action," attorney Jonathan Abramson says.
At the heart of the case, which has so far gone unreported in South Florida: Oates' decision in June 2013 to demote a division chief named Kenneth Murphy.
Murphy had spent 22 years on the force building a sterling reputation, according to his attorney, holding prestigious positions such as Metro Gang Task Force commander and notching just a single disciplinary reprimand, in 1991.
The way Murphy tells it, that all changed in April 2013, when he was served a subpoena in another case involving an Aurora cop named Paul Swanson, who had been demoted. Oates testified in court that Swanson had skipped work and neglected his duties. But when Murphy showed up, he testified the opposite.
"He told them he'd had a chance to review the case and he didn't agree with the demotion," Sisson says. "He was obligated to tell the truth."
Oates didn't take that testimony well. Murphy says the chief gave him a choice: Apologize to the department and recant his testimony in a force-wide email, or be demoted.
"[Murphy] said, 'Look, you're asking me to essentially lie. That's my truthful position I said in court,'" Sisson says. "So he refused the lifeline, and he was demoted."
Oates bumped him down to commander, costing him more than $10,000 in salary.
Murphy argues his testimony in court had nothing to do with his day job as division chief — he was a defense witness offering his opinion, which is protected under the First Amendment.
On February 22, Senior U.S. District Judge Wiley Y. Daniel denied a motion from Oates and the City of Aurora's attorneys to dismiss the case. Instead, it will head to trial August 15 in the U.S. District Court of Colorado.
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