The case of three former Camden police officers who say their department retaliated against them for speaking out against a patrol method - which they viewed as an illegal ticketing quota - can head to trial, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

The court, in reversing part of a ruling from U.S. District Court, said the officers have enough evidence to file a claim under the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, which protects whistle-blowers from retaliation by employers.

The allegations in the case date to 2009, when the patrolmen's union sued the city police department, which has since been disbanded and replaced by a county-run force. The union was led by John Williamson. Then-Officers Charles J. Holland and Anthony Galiazzi also sued.

They alleged that quotas had emerged after the department, in 2008, required officers to perform "directed patrols" - which meant engaging with residents not suspected of crimes.

Department officials said it was a way to get information from residents and increase the visibility of officers.

The suit says that the policy pressured officers to increase arrests and citations in the guise of preventing violent crime, and that reports were distributed each week listing how many tickets, curfew violations, pedestrian stops, and other interactions each patrol officer was responsible for.

Williamson, Holland, and Galiazzi said the department retaliated against them for speaking out against the policy. Holland and Galiazzi said they were transferred to different units. Williamson said the department brought false disciplinary charges against him.

In the ruling Thursday, the appeals court agreed with the district court's ruling that the former city police department's use of "directed patrols" did not equate to illegal ticket quotas.

The appeals court, however, said the department and the City of Camden unfairly dismissed the officers' allegations by comparing them to chronic complainers.

"The relationship between police officers and residents in the high-crime areas that they patrol is of the utmost importance," the court said. "It is indeed unfortunate that the city chooses to view police officers with these kinds of concerns as 'chronic complainers,' " and to compare them to " 'squeaky wheels.' "

"This is offensive," the court said.

John C. Eastlack Jr., who represents Camden in the case, did not immediately return a call Thursday.

Gregg Zeff, the attorney representing the former officers, said Thursday that they would seek damages, but declined to specify an amount.

Zeff said he was glad the appeals court saw the officers' concerns as more than routine complaints.

"We are pleased that the court picked up on that," he said.