Fort Worth officer under investigation for alleged remarks on Facebook

Posted Saturday, Jul. 20, 2013  Print Reprints
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When Pete Villarreal read the comments that had been posted on a public community Facebook page, he was offended.

On the page, a person identified as Tim Fornash ranted against other commenters over some issues concerning President Barack Obama, attacking some as “retards,” saying Social Security is for “hood rats,” and telling one commenter, “[expletive] you wet back!”

But when Villarreal clicked on the commenter’s Facebook profile to find out more about the person, he was shocked to learn that it apparently belonged to a Fort Worth police officer.

“Is this an example of the professional behavior of Fort Worth officials and employees? I was surprised and dismayed that someone who appears to be a Fort Worth police officer would make these kinds of remarks,” Villarreal wrote in an email to the Star-Telegram alerting the paper to the comments.

After police learned about the comments from the Star-Telegram, the alleged misconduct was forwarded to the department’s Internal Affairs Unit and an investigation is under way, Sgt. Kelly Peel, a police spokesman, said.

“We expect our sworn and civilian employees to conduct themselves in a professional manner at all times,” Peel said. “No matter the outcome, the investigation of one officer does not reflect the department as a whole.”

Contacted via Facebook about the comments, Fornash said his account had been hacked.

Asked when it was hacked and if he denied making the statements, Fornash said he couldn’t talk about the matter and referred further comment to his attorney.

Vincent Wisely, Fornash’s attorney with the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, said in a statement that his client is prohibited under department policy from speaking to the media regarding the pending investigation.

“As the attorney representing Officer Fornash, I will also decline to comment at this time in order to protect the integrity of a pending investigation,” he wrote. “I will say that Officer Fornash looks forward to giving his response at the appropriate time and in the appropriate setting.”

A socially slippery slope

While police departments in recent years have begun using social media as a tool for building relationships and communication with the public, some employees’ personal pages have got them into trouble.

In June, Dallas police fired a 911 operator for violating the department’s social media policy after it was discovered that she had posted derogatory comments against African-Americans on her Facebook page.

Last year, a Tarrant County sheriff’s deputy was fired for posting rants on Facebook against Sheriff Dee Anderson and two other county employees after becoming frustrated that he lost his bid for Precinct 1 constable.

“We've written policies and done everything we can to educate people and say, ‘You're responsible in everything you do, in all walks of life, when you present yourself as an employee,’” Anderson told the Star-Telegram at the time. “Freedom of speech only goes so far.”

Lauri Stevens, a Boston-area media consultant for law enforcement, said officers commenting on social networking sites can spell trouble. She warns officers using social media to visualize a wall separating their personal life from their career.

“The minute you put anything on your personal profile that says you’re an officer, you put a hole in that wall,” Stevens said.

Stevens said that although social media comments might not violate departmental policies, they can still hurt an officer’s career and, in some instances, future criminal cases.

“Defense attorneys — the first place they go is to social media profiles of arresting officers in court cases to see if they can find something to use against him,” Stevens said. “So he arrests some Mexican person, the defense twists it into, the guy’s a racist.

“All he [the attorney] had to do is find that comment.”

‘Postings were bigoted’

The comments in question were posted on the night of July 7 on a Facebook community page, Fundies Say the Darndest Things.

“We screenshot crazies from all over the Internet and bring them together in one convenient place for your viewing pleasure,” explain the creators of the page, which currently has more than 62,000 “likes.”

One of those screen shots, posted on July 7 with the author’s name removed, was a rant against Obama, alleging that the president was born in Kenya and chose his Muslim father's name “because he hates Jesus and loves terrorism.”

Villarreal, who lives in south Texas, said a Facebook friend had shared a link to the posting, calling the original comment “horrible.”

Villarreal read it for himself, including the more than 260 comments that had been posted in response. The comments attached to Fornash — 19 in total and all appearing to have been posted via mobile phone — stood out to Villarreal.

“It seemed like his postings were bigoted,” Villarreal said. “This isn’t an accident. This isn’t an off comment because of a bad day. These comments were blatantly bigoted from somebody who is quite comfortable with expressing that kind of bigotry.”

Curious, Villarreal said he clicked on Fornash’s Facebook profile and found a group picture of police officers. He said an Internet search showed that Fornash appeared to be employed by Fort Worth.

“I think that police officers and other public officials carry an added burden because of their work for the public,” he said. “They don’t have the same kind of rights to vent, particularly when their venting shows a demeanor that’s bigoted toward a particular group.”

Peel said what constitutes an officer’s right to free speech and what crosses the line can be blurry.

“At the end of the day, can we as the Police Department tell our officers you cannot use that language ever? Is that protected under free speech?” Peel said. “We cannot control what officers say when they’re off-duty.”

‘Don’t like it? Unfriend me’

Peel said at issue may also be whether officers identify themselves as Fort Worth police when making such comments.

“Obviously, I don’t like those comments at all. They are inflammatory,” Peel said of the remarks. “... But he’s not identifying himself [as a Fort Worth police officer]. Somebody did his own research and figured out he was possibly a police officer.”

Fornash joined the department in January 2009 and is assigned to east patrol.

After the Star-Telegram contacted Fornash , the comments disappeared from the community page and his Facebook profile was changed to the name “Tim Smith.”

The group photograph of officers also has been removed and replaced by the statement, “This is my Facebook I post what I want. Don’t like it? Unfriend me.”

Agencies create policies

Some agencies have created policies for officers’ and employees’ use of social media.

Arlington police implemented a policy in February 2011, establishing guidelines for employees’ use of social networking, both on-duty and off.

“To achieve and maintain the public’s highest level of respect, we must place reasonable restrictions on our conduct and appearance, and hold to these standards of conduct whether on or off duty,” the policy states. “An employee’s actions must never bring the department into disrepute, nor should conduct be detrimental to its efficient operation.”

Restrictions under the policy include that employees should consider all official Police Department business as confidential.

Employee postings or websites deemed inappropriate or which promote misconduct and bring discredit to the department or city may be investigated through a criminal or administrative investigation.

Sgt. Christopher Cook said Arlington police have had to counsel one officer under the policy.

Fort Worth police address social media under the department’s ethical standards policy.

The policy says employees “shall be mindful that negative public perception of the employee may adversely affect the reputation of the police department."

“Therefore, photographs of employees that are posted publicly, including on personal websites, that identify the person as an employee of the Fort Worth Police Department either by text, or presence of the uniform, badge, patch, or logo, must not reflect a lack of good moral character, must not portray conduct prejudicial to good order, and/or be of a nature that would bring justified, unfavorable criticism upon the department or the employee.”

Stevens said that although she recommends that officers stay off Facebook for personal use, she knows many will continue to play the social media game.

“You can’t prevent these guys from being on Facebook. They always say, ‘We have our First Amendment right.’”

She counters that argument, she said, with, “Yes, you also have the absolute right to be a complete idiot.”

Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655 Twitter: @deannaboyd