HILLSIDE, NJ — The township’s police union president has accused the chief of trying to turn the department against him in a newly filed lawsuit against the top cop.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 82 President Michael Flowers filed a hostile work environment and whistleblower suit against the township and Police Chief Vincent Ricciardi in state Superior Court on June 13.
Ricciardi or his appointment as chief last year has been the subject of three lawsuits filed by members of the police department.
“After speaking with our township attorney on this matter, we have been advised that the Township cannot comment on pending litigation,” township spokeswoman Natalie Pineiro said in an email.
Flowers, who has been working as an officer for about 12 years in the department, claims Ricciardi moved him to a different platoon to “punish him” for making a complaint in October about an unidentified police sergeant. The lawsuit alleges the sergeant had made changes to a police report Flowers wrote without his consent.
An attorney for Flowers, Patrick Toscano, told LocalSource the sergeant was not identified in the suit because there may be a pending “confidential” internal affairs investigation about the incident.
According to the lawsuit, other officers in the department told Flowers the sergeant was heard saying Flowers was transferred because he was “a bad influence and was turning other officers against the supervisors.”
The lawsuit alleges Ricciardi took “umbrage” at Flowers for his work in the police union, which often made Flowers take on the administration and chief.
In May 2017, both local police unions in Hillside took a vote of confidence for former acting police Chief Louis Panarese. Panarese sued the township after former Mayor Angela Garretson demoted him and appointed Ricciardi in his place.
As previously reported by LocalSource, Ricciardi’s appointment caused strife within the department. Capt. Nick Lomonte also sued the township, alleging he’d been passed up for the chief position by the former mayor out of retaliation.
Flowers’ suit claims Ricciardi accused him of fabricating a burglary incident he had reported seeing at his home. According to Flowers, he saw a ladder leaning up against his house April 24, and believed a burglary was either taking place or had already occurred.
“Ricciardi went so far as to assign every officer and detective in the department to help to gather evidence with the sole purpose to charge the plaintiff for fabricating evidence,” the suit reads.
The suit also claims that Ricciardi suggested Flowers make a video statement so that fingerprint and DNA analysis could be obtained, and that the the chief made it known he wanted to report Flowers to the Union County Prosecutor’s Office.
Ricciardi also issued Flowers a counseling letter as a form of discipline “for not saying hello or talking to him,” a “silly” allegation, the suit claims. The chief also allegedly denied Flowers’ request to speak with students at George Washington Elementary School during a volunteer event, which the suit claimed violated the officer’s freedom of speech.
EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version incorrectly identified a defendant in earlier lawsuits.