Social media comments can put police department in negative light

Posted Monday, Jul. 22, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A Fort Worth police officer is being investigated by the Internal Affairs Unit over offensive comments from an account in his name on a public Facebook community page.

The incident and subsequent probe have stirred debate over the limits on a peace officer’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, especially when he or she is off-duty and when that speech is published on non-departmental websites.

There is no question officers have rights, but they, perhaps more than anyone else, should know that with those rights comes responsibility. They are taught and often reminded that even when they’re not wearing the badge, they are expected to represent the department.

So freedom of speech is not the real issue here, but the conduct and professionalism of a sworn police officer — on or off duty — that could bring dishonor to the department and the uniform he/she wears.

This latest incident was brought to light when a South Texas man noticed responses to a Facebook posting saying President Obama was born in Kenya, was a Muslim, hated Jesus and loves terrorism.

One respondent, writing from an account in the name Tim Fornash, posted comments that referred to some other writers as “retards,” Social Security recipients as “hood rats” and one person as “[obscenity] you wet back!”

All of those statements are offensive and prejudiced on their face, and when the South Texas reader looked at the public profile and found photos indicating the author was a Fort Worth police officer, he asked in an email to the Star-Telegram: “Is this an example of the professional behavior of Fort Worth officials and employees?”

The answer to his question is an emphatic no, but if this officer said those things, it demonstrates how the actions of one individual can reflect on an entire department and the whole city.

In addition to bringing disrespect to the department and fellow officers, such prejudiced statements could have an impact on criminal cases in which the offending officer might be involved. Depending on the ethnicity or economic status of the defendant, the defense attorney is sure to introduce such comments as evidence of bigotry.

Fornash has said his computer was hacked, but he has not denied the statements. If the department finds he wrote them, discipline should be applied.

Regardless, this episode should serve as a reminder to all police officers that all their public actions, including comments on social media, reflect on them and their department.

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