January 7, 2014

Fort Worth officer who posted offensive comments not suspended

In an email to the Community Advisory Board, the police chief says he told the officer that he will be fired if he ever makes a similar policy violation again.

A police officer who posted controversial comments on Facebook was not suspended after an internal investigation found that he was off-duty and never identified himself as a police officer or city employee when he made the statements.

The investigation, however, did conclude that Tim Fornash was “unprofessional” in his comments, according to an email sent Dec. 31 by Police Chief Jeff Halstead to the Community Advisory Board.

“There are many issues relating to this investigation that I am legally restricted from commenting … but I want all of you to know that the officer was in fact ‘off duty’ and he was found to have used offensive language in some of his comments on a website discussing politics,” Halstead wrote in the email. “He has been a police officer for 5 years and has never received any formal discipline. This matter has been concluded and I am confident he will never commit these violations again.”

Fornash’s attorney, Vincent Wisely, did not return phone calls left by the Star-Telegram.

Halstead did not say in his email whether Fornash was disciplined in the matter. The Police Department, however, is required to file documents of any discipline involving at least a one-day suspension with the Civil Service Commission. The commission received no such documents.

“I expressed to him on a recorded interview that if he ever commits this type of policy violation again, I will terminate his employment,” Halstead wrote in the email. “He agreed with me and he assured me it will not happen. He admitted full responsibility for his bad judgment and is back to work.”

Halstead told the Star-Telegram on Tuesday that civil service law prohibits him from discussing his decision but that it stemmed from previous legal decisions regarding a person’s right to free speech.

“After extensive review and legal research and consultation with the city attorney’s office it was clear that the offensive comments were made as a private citizen and had no relation to him being employed by the city or police department,” Halstead said.

Man offended by comments

Police began an investigation of Fornash after a South Texas man, Pete Villarreal, contacted the Star-Telegram in July, telling the newspaper about what he considered offensive comments posted on a public community Facebook page, Fundies Say the Darndest Things. Villarreal told the Star-Telegram that he suspected that the commenter was a Fort Worth police officer.

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

Offended by the comments, Villarreal told the Star-Telegram that he clicked on Fornash’s Facebook profile, where he found a group picture of police officers. Another Internet search indicated that Fornash was employed by Fort Worth, prompting Villarreal to contact the newspaper to verify whether Fornash was a Fort Worth officer.

Contacted by the Star-Telegram via Facebook in July about the comments, Fornash said he been “hacked.”

Disappointed with decision

In a phone interview Tuesday, Villarreal said he was disappointed by Halstead’s decision.

“I think it’s naive to think that an individual who is so comfortable with making these kind of remarks doesn’t have a deep-seated resentment or mistrust of minorities and it’s naive to think that such an individual is not going to bring that prejudice into practice when he is in uniform,” Villarreal said.

“… What this ultimately does is it increases the distrust in the community for the police force. That’s sad because I think all of us, including minorities, want to trust and believe in their police force because we need it to protect us from the very kind of abuses that this man is demonstrating.”

Halstead said that although Villarreal never contacted the Police Department or the city “to express his outrage over the comments from a citizen he thought was a police officer,” the department began investigating after learning about the comments from the Star-Telegram.

“As a department, we took it serious enough to initiate on our own and did not wait for anyone to complain,” Halstead said.

Kyev Tatum, a member of the advisory board and president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, expressed outrage that Fornash was allowed to remain on the force. In response, Tatumsaid the SCLC is planning an MLK Hate Speech protest at 5 p.m. Jan. 19 at the Tarrant County Courthouse in downtown Fort Worth.

“As the chief of police, you should not have any one on your force who harbors those attitudes,” Tatum said. “That’s Archie Bunker on a police force with a badge and Taser.

“For this city to embrace it, for this chief to justify it and tolerate it, is unacceptable,” he said.

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