2009-09-10 / Front Page

Plumsted police officer back at work

Ernest Freestone was suspended for 18 months for medical reasons
BY DAVE BENJAMIN Staff Writer

APlumsted police officer who was suspended from his job for more than a year is back at work. Township officials last week reinstated Officer Ernest Freestone to his position in the Plumsted Police Department.

Freestone returned to work on Sept. 2. It remains to be determined if he will receive the pay he was denied during his unpaid suspension from the police force.

Mayor Ron Dancer said Freestone's reinstatement was the result of the ongoing discussions between the officer's attorney, Guy Ryan, and Plumsted's labor counsel, James Holzapfel. He said the discussions took place in August.

Dancer said officials are thankful that Freestone has returned to work with a medical clearance. He said he believes there will be good-faith discussions regarding any outstanding issues that arose as a result of Freestone's unpaid leave.

However, Mitch Geier, a supporter of Freestone, said he believes Freestone was ordered back to work because the community at large was being told about the circumstances that surrounded his suspension.

At the Sept. 2 meeting of the Township Committee, Freestone said he was pleased to return to work.

"I look forward to continuing my service to [Plumsted's residents] and I look forward to continuing my relationship with the Township Committee as well," he said.

Freestone, who has been a full-time officer in Plumsted since 2002, was suspended for 18 months. He said the situation was an ordeal and one that may have begun with political motives.

According to Freestone, Plumsted police Lt. George Titko, who is no longer working for the department, harassed him for almost seven years and, in an effort to dismiss him, made several claims regarding his (Freestone's) health and his ability to do the job.

Freestone alleged that the situation may have stemmed from politics when he, a Democrat, was active in getting the local PBA to back Geier, who was running for a seat on the Township Committee as a Democrat.

The Township Committee is made up solely of Republicans.

During the 18-month suspension, Freestone said, Titko requested that he be evaluated because it was the lieutenant's opinion that Freestone was stressed out and depressed.

Freestone complied with Titko's request.

"When I went to the first doctor, I passed [all the tests]," the officer said.

The officer then saw a second doctor, and he claimed that doctor was supplied with information by Titko.

"The tests proved me to be free of any problems, but the doctor's opinion was that I failed to be fit for duty," said Freestone.

The officer said he visited three more doctors, all of whom cleared him for work. However, he remained on suspension.

Freestone said he thought it was ironic, since he had not been previously advised in any way that he could be suspended from the police department or placed on medical leave.

During the ordeal, Freestone, who had been at home without pay, has also been struggling to keep his home, while dealing with his wife's two battles with cancer.

"She has been in and out of work, which has [caused our] home to be in and out of foreclosure," the officer said.

Freestone noted that Titko was paid when he (Titko) was suspended from the police department earlier this year while under investigation for an incident that involved allegations of sexual harassment.

Titko subsequently left his position in Plumsted.

Geier noted that a letter that detailed the circumstances surrounding Freestone's situation had been sent to the entire Plumsted community in the days before the committee ordered Freestone back to work.

"Ernie and his attorney have not reached any agreement with the township [regarding back pay]. Ernie was ordered back to work all of a sudden, and that 'all of a sudden' was only after the letter hit the community," Geier said.

He said Freestone's car was going to be repossessed, so the officer had to sell it and pay off the loan.

"What he has asked for financially is very reasonable, and the township is not willing to give him all of his back salary, never mind any compensation for what was done to him," Geier said.

He alleged that the committee's decision to tell Freestone to report back to work was made in order to defuse a political situation.

"It's good to see Ernie is back on the force, but I am concerned with all of the circumstances that have happened and there is still no resolution," Geier said. "I understand that he was ordered back to work, and that seemed to be a miraculous thing. The flier went out. People were asked to come to [the Sept. 2] meeting and Ernie is back to work.

"Everything seems to smack of politics, and I really think [municipal officials] should consider having a police chief for the police department, which would take the politics out of the police department," said Geier. "If anything else, that would get it away from looking as if there were any impropriety."

The Plumsted Police Department does not have a police chief. The department is run by a director of public safety who reports to the Township Committee.

Dancer said there have been discussions among attorneys and said possible settlement agreements have been exchanged between Plumsted's labor attorney and Freestone's attorney.

"That has resulted in a positive development of Officer Freestone returning to work at the direction of the director of public safety," the mayor said. "The outstanding issues will be addressed. There are still ongoing discussions and exchanges, and we hope that within the next few weeks there will be a direction and hopefully a resolution in that matter."

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