Navy vet claims Florida police department broke the law by not promoting him


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A Miami Shores cop and military veteran whose Navy SEAL team captured some of the most notorious war criminals in Iraq is fighting the city over a federal law that allows returning veterans the upper hand when it comes to promotions.

Joshua Koop, who served a nine-month tour in Baghdad in 2009, was bypassed for a promotion last year when the Florida city offered advancements to officers for the first time in more than a decade. Koop said he believes his bid was denied in retaliation for his role as president of the local police union.

The union chapter has formally objected to the perks of Police Chief Kevin Lystad's pay package, which allows him to collect a full salary while drawing full pension at the same time.

"I just want to be made whole," said Koop. His rejection "had nothing to do with who was qualified or who wasn't qualified."

A promotion from detective to sergeant would mean an increase of about $10,000 a year in salary for Koop. It would also mean his future pension payout would increase substantially. If Koop wins the case, he's asking to be paid retroactively from June when the promotions were awarded.

In a letter addressed to Koop at the end of September, the city argues he was denied a promotion to sergeant because he's already used the veteran's rule when he received a promotion last year to detective, that there were at least three other Miami Shores officers more deserving of the promotion and, according to the union contract agreed upon by the parties, any promotion is at the sole discretion of Lystad.

Miami Shores police detective Joshua Koop, seen here at left during a deployment to Iraq in 2009, says he was unfairly bypassed for a promotion at the police department and he's fighting the decision with the help of the Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs. (Courtesy of Joshua Koop)

"The village maintains that you exhausted your statutory post-deployment veteran's preference when you were promoted to detective on July 16, 2018," attorney Leonard A. Carson wrote, who represents Miami Shores in labor negotiations.

Reached Monday, Lystad said Koop's belief that the union members were being picked on was "categorically untrue. There's no basis for that whatsoever." Police union members have campaigned against a village ordinance that permits anyone rehired after their retirement date to receive both a salary and a full pension without continuing to contribute to the fund. The union argues that amounts to double dipping that will reduce their future payouts.

At the heart of the disagreement is something called Veterans' Preference. It's a federal law passed in 1944 that allows, in part, police returning from active duty to add 10 points to a score on a promotional exam, then gain the promotion over anyone with an equal or worse score who took the same test.

With the 10 points added to his June test score, Koop finished second out of 12 candidates. Yet three others were promoted ahead of him. Seeking help, Koop hired attorney Eugene Gibbons and contacted the State of Florida Department of Veterans' Affairs (FDVA). Koop said Lystad promoted the officers who finished first and seventh in the testing, bypassing spots two, three, five and six.

"Those four spots that were bypassed were all union board members for the FOP [Fraternal Order of Police] in Miami Shores," Koop said.

The state's Veterans' Affairs department wrote a letter to Koop in August that was forwarded to the city that said "the investigative findings confirm that you are a preference-eligible veteran." The letter gave the city 30 days to offer an explanation. It told Koop if the complaint wasn't resolved by then, he has the right to appeal to the Public Employees Relations Commission [PERC], an independent, quasi-judicial agency that settles public-sector labor and employment disputes.

In response, the city maintained its position. In the September letter written by Carson to Koop, the attorney took issue with the FDVA's findings.

"Contrary to the FDVA finding, You were effectively afforded preference at each stage of the process. Despite the fact that you did not assert your preference until June 19, 2019, after the last promotion was announced, your application was fully considered at each step of the process. No candidate received consideration that was not likewise accorded to you," Carson wrote.

Carson said he'd prefer not to litigate in the media, but passed along an earlier, more in-depth letter his office sent to the FDVA. In it, he said even with the 10 added points, Koop scored lower than the three people who were promoted on the written part of the exam. The exam is taken in three parts: written, response to live scenarios and an interview with a three-member panel.

One of Carson's findings was that Koop didn't file a grievance about the promotion process until 11 months after the test was taken. The attorney also noted that the city's police union contract gives Lystad "the final authority in determining which officers are to be promoted, and the sequence of their promotion."

Koop said he was late in trying to apply Veterans' Preference because he didn't learn about it until last June. Koop's attorney Gibbons said he intends on filing a complaint with PERC by the end of this week or early next week. PERC's decision on the matter will be final.

Gibbons also said it doesn't matter that Koop came forward with the Veterans' Preference complaint 11 months after the test and that the chief can't override the test scores and promote whom he chooses.

"That's completely wrong," said the attorney. "It's a smoke screen."

Koop, 32, who joined the U.S. Navy in 2006 as a reserve, was hired by Miami Shores in April 2008, even before he graduated from the police academy. Before the end of the year he received orders that he was headed to Iraq. On his way there Koop was informed that he was to be a member of a top secret mission working mainly as a technician and was to team up with SEAL Team 10 in Baghdad.

His main responsibility, Koop said, was transporting captured terrorists. "They were the worst of the worst," he said.

Koop spent 275 days in Iraq and was finally sent home on Christmas Day, 2009. A letter from his SEAL Team Commanding Officer Richard Diviney said Koop performed "remarkably" in 36 combat operations that led to the capture of 47 detainees, including 11 "high value individuals."

A month after Koop left SEAL Team 10, it captured one of the most notorious terrorists in the Iraq War. Ahmad Ashim Al-Isawi was nicknamed "The Butcher of Fallujah" after being credited with masterminding the capture and hanging of four Blackwater civilians in Fallujah in 2004. The horrifying pictures of the bodies being beaten, set on fire, dragged through the streets, then hung, remain some of the most iconic images of the Iraq War.

At the time of his capture by SEAL Team 10 in September 2009, Al-Isawi was the most wanted terrorist in Iraq. He was later executed for his crimes. Koop wouldn't say if he took part in any operations that led to Al-Isawi's capture.

©2019 Miami Herald. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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