A former Pleasanton police officer has filed a federal lawsuit against city and police department officials for allegedly firing him after finding out he attended a "Stop the Steal" rally in Sacramento at the same time as the insurrection in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Peter "Pete" McNeff was a five-year-plus veteran at the Pleasanton Police Department, after having joined the department back in December 2015. McNeff's attorneys contend that he had been previously lauded for his "exemplary record" and recognized for his actions in the department throughout his career.
But when McNeff decided to attend a "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, 2021 in the state's capital city on his own personal time, which was on the same day as the insurrection at Washington D.C., several of his co-workers saw photos of McNeff at the rally that he posted on his social media accounts, according to the lawsuit.
That led to complaints being filed against McNeff and officers criticizing him for his political beliefs, ultimately resulting on him being placed on leave, according to the lawsuit.
"On January 7, 2021, a police sergeant sent a memorandum to Mr. (David) Swing documenting internal complaints regarding Mr. McNeff's political action," the federal lawsuit states. "In this memorandum, authored and sent one day following the January 6, 2021 political rally, this Sergeant 'concluded' that Mr. McNeff attended an event organized by a group known for their propensity to discuss extreme violence, incitement of violence, and threats."
The memorandum also stated that McNeff had "directly associated himself with the unlawful activities at the U.S. Capitol."
While the lawsuit argues that there is no evidence that McNeff did anything other than attend and observe the rally, PPD followed up with a formal investigation just a few months later that year.
The investigation, led by an outside law firm, looked into McNeff's entire social media history and interviewed several other PPD employees before making five separate allegations all relating to his current and past political views, according to the lawsuit.
"The Department chose to commence such an investigation into Mr. McNeff's suspected radicalized and/or extremist associations, absent any information that Mr. McNeff actually associated with or supported any such hate or extremist groups, resulting in lasting and irreversible damage to Mr. McNeff's character and reputation. The department did so after at least one senior officer urged them not to touch this issue with a ten-foot pole," according to the lawsuit.
Some of the allegations made by the law firm included being associated with racist, extremist groups like the Proud Boys and posting multiple racist and anti-Muslim comments on several of his social media accounts, according to the lawsuit.
While the lawsuit states that most of the allegations were not sustained and some were exonerated due to freedom of speech and rights to express political views, McNeff was ultimately fired from PPD on Feb. 4, 2022.
"The department and city's stated reasons for termination are pretext," the lawsuit states. "Mr. McNeff was, in fact, fired because he expressed protected political opinions and ideologies deemed 'unpopular' and even stupid by the department, (Chief) Swing, and (PPD Capt. Larry) Cox."
Pleasanton city attorney Dan Sodergren told the Weekly that the city cannot comment on pending litigation and could not provide personnel records regarding McNeff's termination.
PPD Sgt. Marty Billdt also told the Weekly that the city is "legally prohibited from commenting on personnel matters."
McNeff will be seeking a trial by jury for economic and non-economic compensation and is alleging that the Pleasanton Police Department and city officials violated his First Amendment rights, retaliated against him for engaging in political activity, and wrongfully fired him for lawful, off-duty activities.
"They knew that firing Mr. McNeff for engaging in off-duty political speech protected by the First Amendment was illegal, immoral and wrong," according to the lawsuit. "In addition, they knew or should have known, and acted with reckless disregard of the fact that engaging in the above-described adverse employment actions would result in substantial harm to Mr. McNeff, his reputation, his career, his employment, and his employability. Nevertheless, they acted with cruel and retaliatory motives and deliberate indifference to Mr. McNeff's rights under the law."
The lawsuit, filed on Jan. 10 in the U.S. District Court for Northern California in Oakland, names as defendants the city, PPD, Chief Swing, Capt. Cox and Brian Dolan, who was interim city manager at the time.
on Feb 15, 2023 at 1:38 am
on Feb 15, 2023 at 1:38 am
This case will be a true test of former Officer McNeff’s 1st amendment rights.
The case is a workplace investigation that was obviously investigated by Internal Affairs. What I want to know is what McNeff was charged with. Was he in violation of PPD Policy and/or Merit System Rules? The catchall of course in any Internal Affairs investigations is the charge of: Conduct unbecoming of a police officer. But was he?
I believe the city of Pleasanton could get taken to the cleaners over this and here’s why. The city of Pleasanton is going to have to do one of two things, or both: pay McNeff a hefty sum of money and/or reinstate him. If I’m McNeff’s attorney, here’s what I would nail the City of Pleasanton with.
Every year, during gay pride celebrations, many police departments from across the U.S. change their shoulder patches on their uniforms to symbolize gay pride. However, many police officers refuse to wear the temporary patch because they believe the gay pride celebration is political. And those officers have every right to refuse. Just as those other officers have the right - per department policy - to wear gay themed police shoulder patches.
Granted, we don’t know what kinds of postings or pictures social media displays about McNeff. And I for one don’t know anything about the Stop the Steal rally. If McNeff’s lawyers can show that the rally the plaintiff attended did not align with any kind of hate group, the City of Pleasanton is going to have a very bad day in court.
The harm showed in the case will be:
4. Civil Rights
And remember, according to this article, McNeff had five years on with the department and an exemplary record.
This case is headed to a costly jury trial. Oh, and if McNeff wins on violations to his 1st Amendment rights, Pleasanton will be on the hook for lawyer fees and court costs.