Ethics Quiz: The Sensitive Cop’s Facebook Confession

sensitive cop“If there was any time I despised wearing a police uniform, it was yesterday at the Capitol during the water rally. A girl I know who frequents the Capitol for environmental concerns looked at me and wanted me to participate with her in the event. I told her I have to remain unbiased while on duty at these events. She responded by saying, ‘You’re a person, aren’t you?’ That comment went straight through my heart!”

Thus did Douglas Day, a police officer at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, confess to Facebook friends his mixed emotions while doing his duty.

For this he was fired.

The day Day wrote his Facebook post, Capitol Police Lt. T.M. Johnson told him  that the post “shows no respect to the department, the uniform or the law enforcement community which he represents.”  About a week later, Sgt. A.E. Lanham Jr. wrote to Day that he “found the entire [Facebook] posting to be extremely offensive and shocking … This is just another episode of many incidents which show his bad attitude and lack of enthusiasm toward police work in general and toward our department in particular.”

Day was thunderstruck. “If they believed there was some sort of a violation I made, then why wasn’t it addressed? They never brought me in and never said anything to me,” Day said. “In 2½ years working there, I had no disciplinary action taken against me at any time. Nothing was ever written up and I received no reprimands.” So much for the “many incidents.”

Day’s lawyer calls the justification for Day’s firing “narrow-minded and flimsy.” “Other state workers also have Facebook pages. There is no violation of policy in what Doug did. And he was very careful not to name who he was talking about,” Simmons said. “Can they take away his right to free speech?”

Or is this a case of a government agency justifiably losing its trust in an employee for whom trust is essential?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the day is…

Was Day’s firing ethical?

My take: I’m not convinced it was even legal, but I am quite sure it is unfair.

Day simply confided on his Facebook page that his duties required him to do things that caused him as an individual and a human being, to feel conflicted. That’s a thoroughly professional attitude.  Day’s expressed thoughts would have been consistent with those of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, sending young men into the invasion of Normandy under atrocious weather conditions.

There was nothing in the Facebook post that should have reasonably caused Day’s superiors to doubt his loyalty, dedication, or professionalism. Indeed, I regard his anecdote as entirely benign, and more than that, an indication of his competence and trustworthiness.

This isn’t merely punishing speech; it’s punishing speech that indicates virtuous thoughts and an ethical character.

NOTE: While not exactly on point, this case from the Philippines, (the photo above comes from that incident) from 2013, shows how a different government might approach this situation…

_________________

Pointer: Fred

Facts: West Virginia Gazette

 

 

“If there was any time I despised wearing a police uniform, it was yesterday at the Capitol during the water rally,” Day wrote. “A girl I know who frequents the Capitol for environmental concerns looked at me and wanted me to participate with her in the event. I told her I have to remain unbiased while on duty at these events.

“She responded by saying, ‘You’re a person, aren’t you?’ That comment went straight through my heart!”

– See more at: http://www.wvgazette.com/article/20140527/GZ01/140529453/1419#sthash.Ykz4RDdk.Aa17Nd4i.dpuf

18 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Sensitive Cop’s Facebook Confession

  1. I’m not too familiar with West Virginia civil service law, but in NJ arguably the firing could be held legal. Police officers are supposed to exercise “tact, restraint, and good judgment at all times.” I personally oversaw the removal of at least two officers who disparaged both city and police department leadership, anonymously, no less, online. The same applies to firemen and corrections officers. These are paramilitary organizations and it is deemed a breach of the discipline inherent in such an organization to publicly disparage or dispute with the leadership. Arguably this is slightly different, since the officer was simply indicating that he was conflicted about his duties, not mocking leadership, but, in the end, he still took an oath to faithfully execute those duties and is expected to do just that, period.

    No one is saying he can’t feel conflicted or have some questions about what he is doing. However, there are channels for handling such questions internally within most police departments. What he did, making a public post indicating that he despised his job and his uniform because his duties required him to come into conflict with a protester, had the effect of converting an internal issue into an external one, by letting anyone who saw that post know that this officer could be “gotten to,” thereby weakening the department’s ability to keep order at the Capitol and potentially exposing others to danger.

    I just came off Fleet Week in New York, when the public can tour active duty ships. There was a very heavy security presence both outside the ships with the NYPD and on the docks and aboard with Navy and USMC security troops. In the past the event has been targeted by so-called peace activists who will unfurl banners, sing, or sometimes pour blood etc. It’s simply too easy for a for-real terrorist to masquerade as a peace activist and there is no room for tolerating this kind of disorder in the war on terror. I’d feel that much less safe about the whole thing if one of those security folks made a public post saying he/she couldn’t wait to get the uniform off at the end of the day after turning a protester away “because we’re all for peace” or some other platitude like that.

    I’m not saying that when you pin on a badge and strap on a gun you surrender your humanity and become a mindless automaton of your appointing authority, it’s a badge, not a swastika. However, I am saying that a special obligation to behave wisely, including displaying good judgment at all times, goes with the privilege of wearing those things and exercising the power that goes with them. This post was not in good judgment, since it made a private conflict that shouldn’t have gone farther than the department or maybe even home, as the guy discussed a tough day with his wife, public. Termination was a harsh penalty, and might not hold up on appeal, but discipline was definitely appropriate and ethical, since this was not appropriate public behavior.

  2. Before I answer, I would like to know if the police department had a policy relating to public employees and social media (for instance, my son’s Catholic school has as strict policy about interacting with parents of students on facebook, twitter, etc., and its policy is part of the employment contract). If there is a stated policy with language that would cover this type of posting, then the firing may be ethical.

    If, however, the police force does not have such a policy, then the firing was unwarranted, unjustified and wrong. Moreover, it would be unethical to fire the police officer for his post. He did not impugn the badge, the uniform, the force or his duty as a police officer. I wonder how many firefighters and police officers felt the same way during the September 11 attacks in New York, Washington, DC., and Pennsylvania, knowing that many of their fellow firefighters and officers were putting themselves in harm’s way knowing what the results would be and could not do any more to save their colleagues or innocent civilians trapped in the burning buildings.

    A factor buried at the bottom of the linked article states that the officer spent 13 years as a combat medic in the Army and a police officer in the Air Force and he also spent several years as a security officer for Kanawha County parks and at Yeager Airport. This doesn’t seem to be the kind of person who has issues with authority or respect for the uniform. Quite the contrary, those two factors lead me to believe that the police officer understands his oath a lot better than many others do (including mine own self!), and that his posting was the result of an internal conflict brought on by an encounter with someone he knew. The driving factor to me is that he declined to join the protest because he knew he had to remain neutral and uninvolved. That sounds like an ethical, professional member of the police force to me.

    jvb

      • That was the impression I had as well. Steve-O-in-NJ makes valid points that would justify his dismissal; however, if the Facebook post is/was the sole reason for the officer’s dismissal, then I still think that his firing was unjustified and unjustifiable. He comment is fairly benign compared to the instances Steve-O-in-NJ stated (which in my mind were directed at the force and superiors, justifying their terminations).

        jvb

        • I read the article several times making sure I wasn’t missing some critical detail, and am still slightly baffled. I did come to a similar conclusion as Steve-O-in-NJ that any expression of doubt or dissent might be considered inappropriate, and if the post violated some such unwritten policy then a warning of some sort should have been issued first. Termination though makes no sense.

          The reactions of his superiors seem totally disproportionate:

          ” Sgt. A.E. Lanham Jr. wrote to Foreman, “I found the entire [Facebook] posting to be extremely offensive and shocking … This is just another episode of many incidents which show his bad attitude and lack of enthusiasm toward police work in general and toward our department in particular.” ”

          Objectively speaking, the post is neither “extremely offensive” nor “shocking”; only if there were significant truth to the claim of ongoing, yet undocumented “unenthusiastic” behavior would such comments be warranted. No evidence of such behavior has been presented. The superiors seem to be one-upping each other, trying to express the most outrage over this rather benign comment. The result is that a justified reprimand gets escalated into an unjustified termination.

  3. The fact that he did his job, the best way he knew how, despite his personal feelings is something to be commended.

    On the other hand, making a public post wherein he says “I despised wearing a police uniform” is where he goes over the line.

    Inappropriate and deserving of reprimand? Yes. A firing offense? I don’t think so.

    That said, the “girl [he knows] who frequents the Capitol for environmental concerns” is a complete nitwit. Yes, he’s a person . . . and he’s looking out for YOUR safety. Thank him and move on. Don’t insult him.

    –Dwayne

    • Let me begin by stating that I am NOT the woman who made that comment to Doug. However, I do know both parties rather well. It is important to note that this was in the midst of an extremely difficult time during the water crisis. We had just been told that we could not use our water to drink, bathe, brush our teeth, do laundry or even come into contact with it in any manner. There was even a period of time we were scared to flush the toilets. We were not being given any information about the chemicals in the water or what the possible ramifications to our health would be (for that matter, we still do not know the long-term effects). What was said by the woman was not well thought out, no. There were extenuating circumstances though.

        • While the comment made by the woman are not in question, I was attempting to add the general context of which her comment was made. We were scared and we were emotional.
          Legally what the State did is unquestionably wrong. There is no policy in place (currently) about decorum outside the workplace or while not in uniform.
          I apologize for getting off topic however.

      • I have family in the local fire department, which has a similar level of camaraderie as a police department. I can kind of picture one of my relatives sharing this among family while reflecting on stressful situation. I could also understand such a statement making the management uncomfortable if it were shared with the public, especially if immediately after the situation. Ms. Davis’s posting adds context that it was a stressful situation for everyone, and that may have played a role in the police department’s internal reaction that I found bafflingly disproportionate.

  4. Another valid point to look at..at least in my eyes is that fact that Mr. Day’s facebook account is set up under a nickname, and not his actual name. Obviously those that are friends recognize the nickname and the profile of course, but I wonder if this has any bearing?

    • Authoring under a pseudonym would make a difference I think if people didnt know who the pseudonym was. Apparantly they did. This may e related to the Sterling situation where a friend betrayed what was reasobaly assumed to be a confidence… Although more believable if the account was private and not public (anyone know the answer to this)?

    • Excellent point. While Mr. Day was venting his frustrations over having to separate himself from the uniform in a time of crisis he even went further to hide his identity on social media so as one could not easily discern his professional role. I take this as further evidence of him taking measures as to not bring question to his professional opinion and even more, someone had to be actively trying to find him.

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