KANKAKEE — A former Kankakee police officer is suing the city and his former boss, alleging they violated his free-speech rights to post on social media.
In a federal civil rights lawsuit filed late last month, former Officer Michael Shreffler said he violated no city policies with his social media posts. He argued he was ultimately fired for exercising his First Amendment rights.
Shreffler, who is white, also said he was the victim of racial discrimination. He said his superiors twisted his comments as racist.
In an interview, Shreffler said the charge of racism was “upsetting” and “alarming,” noting his fiancée is African American.
“If I were racist, she would know,” he said.
His lawsuit names as defendants the city and former interim Police Chief Price Dumas. It also mentions Mayor Chasity Wells-Armstrong in its narrative. The lawsuit notes both Dumas and Wells-Armstrong are African American.
On Feb. 9, 2016, Shreffler posted a Facebook comment about music star Beyonce’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime performance. According to the lawsuit, he made no overt references to race and did not identify himself as a police officer.
However, a day later, then-Police Chief Larry Regnier, who is white, issued a written reprimand to Shreffler in response to the post, the lawsuit said.
Shreffler later reported to Regnier about racially charged posts by a black superior and Regnier reprimanded the superior. The superior then reportedly told a fellow officer that he would find out who turned him in and that the person would pay for it.
After Wells-Armstrong took office in 2017, Shreffler’s African-American superior told two officers that he intended to fire Shreffler regarding the Facebook incident, the lawsuit alleges.
In December 2017, Shreffler received a written reprimand for a violation that occurred more than three months before, a decision the mayor later upheld.
Another officer did about the same thing a few months later, but was not disciplined, unlike Shreffler, the lawsuit said. And in January 2018, Shreffler was taken off an assignment to train a recruit, which would have meant a higher pay rate for Shreffler. He was told such a reassignment was a rare action.
In February 2018, Shreffler received a notice of his alleged social media policy violations, for which he later received a five-day suspension. This was in reference to posts where he didn’t use his last name or identify himself as an officer.
In one post, he said, “Corruption from this mayor....weird!!” In response to another commenter, he said, “Good question, but with this Administration anything is possible!! (Expletive) show...”
His lawsuit maintains he was in compliance with the department’s social media policy, which states it “does not limit an employee from speaking as a private citizen ... about matters of public concern, such as misconduct or corruption.”
In March 2018, interim Chief Dumas approached a family member of Shreffler’s at her workplace and asked her if Shreffler was “mad at him.” She felt threatened by Dumas and filed a citizens complaint with the department.
That same month, Shreffler took part in active-shooter training at the Kankakee Junior High School. After the session, he was accused of using a racial slur there, an allegation he said was untrue.
The next month, he appeared at a personnel hearing in connection with the racial slur, but his lawsuit did not indicate the outcome specific to that alleged violation.
In May 2018, Dumas issued Shreffler a notice of termination. His lawsuit said he never received a listing of charges supporting his termination and was not given due process. It alleged retaliation for his exercise of free speech.
“Dumas misused his power and authority as the interim chief to terminate Shreffler,” the lawsuit said, pointing to a section of the city code that says the police chief is subordinate to the mayor and board of fire and police commissioners.
Wells-Armstrong said the city wouldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit, which is its usual policy. Dumas, who abruptly resigned last year, didn’t return a call for comment.
Shreffler started with the Kankakee police in 2009. Before that, he worked as a deputy for the Iroquois County Sheriff’s Department for one year and was with the Kankakee County jail for six years.
Shreffler said he is now working as a part-time police officer in suburban Rockdale, which neighbors Joliet.
Before his problems with his superiors, he said he enjoyed working for the Kankakee police.
“I had a good rapport with the previous administration. I’m good friends with a lot of the guys that still work there,” he said. “It was an awesome place to work.”
His lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages, but he said he would like to have his old job back.
His lawyer, Kelly Krauchun, said her client’s work history speaks for itself.
“He trained new recruits to the department. He became a first-class patrolman quickly after he was hired,” Krauchun said.
She said the city’s violation of her client’s rights has made it hard for him to get another full-time officer job.
“The police world is very small. Since this experience, he has been passed over for many jobs. What department would take a chance to hire someone with this looming?” Krauchun said.
As for the comments on Beyonce, Shreffler said he was upset that the star was dressed as a Black Panther at the Super Bowl.
“I thought it was crap that the NFL was allowing her to make it a political spectacle. If it was reversed, there would be outrage. Another person said I was being racist. We got into it. It was a verbal altercation on Facebook. I made no racist comments,” Shreffler said.
Krauchun works for the Herbert Law Firm in Chicago, led by Daniel Herbert. He represented Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke, who was convicted in the killing of Laquan McDonald last year. The law firm's public relations firm is spreading word about the lawsuit.