Ethics Alarms Flashback Post Of The Week: “Ethics Quiz: The Sensitive Cop’s Facebook Confession”

[A  while ago I wrote that I might periodically re-post one of the more than 2000 Ethics Alarms essays that have appeared here since 2009. The criteria? Let’s see:

  • A post that I have completely forgotten about, and don’t remember even after I’ve read it again.
  • A post that may be interesting to consider in light of subsequent developments since it was written (in this case,  social media posts triggering workplace discipline, and police-community relations)
  • A lively discussion in the comments.

I think this post, based on a find by now-retired Ethics Alarms super-scout Fred, qualifies on all counts. It’s from May of 2014.]

“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…

6 thoughts on “Ethics Alarms Flashback Post Of The Week: “Ethics Quiz: The Sensitive Cop’s Facebook Confession”

  1. I know I would prefer to have an officer aware and thinking about the situation at hand. I would want one who sees the temptation to react emotionally when a friend demand he act against his position as a peace officer while on duty. (I think very poorly of the so-called friend to make that demand. Any position of some power and authority such as police, military, and medical, MUST be able to limit their personal reactions while on duty- lives depend on that control) That he made the correct decision despite the temptation and social pressure, should have been lauded.

    These superiors are saying they don’t want thining officers, able to make the right decisions under pressure, but droids. I won’t trust droids to protect us. Flip one code, and we’re all the criminals, with no recourse.

    • This was my thought as well. I don’t typically comment dittos, but Jack has been bemoaning the traffic and while I don’t know if this would help, I thought I’d do my part.

  2. Douglas Day’s use of the word “despised” (as in, “despised wearing a police uniform”) was perhaps not the wisest choice. I could see that one word being a “trigger” to his superiors and perceived as a reflection of “[Day’s] bad attitude.”

    It’s one thing to admit that you were doing your job at a time and place that caused you to feel conflicted about doing that job. It’s a significant step further to characterize your conflict specifically as consisting of “despising” your job, because that suggests dubious or lacking loyalty to – even disrespect for – fellow law enforcement officers.

    While under hostile fire, I don’t want to share a foxhole with a soldier who says, however detachedly, “Sometimes I hate this Army.” If I heard shit like that in the heat of combat, I could see myself shooting the speaker before resuming firing on the enemy.

    I don’t expect this to happen, but if it did, I could understand and sympathize with a “benching:” I imagine excellent baseball player Marwin Gonzalez of the Minnesota Twins, formerly of the Houston Astros, tweeting something like: “Felt good to hit that game-winning homer last night – except…it made me sick as I circled the bases and saw the defeated looks on the faces of my old teammates.” If I was Marwin’s manager on the Twins, a tweet like that would cause me to take him aside and say, “Okay – you’re on the bench for our next game against the Astros. I am responsible for you not to be sick. You’re responsible for deciding whether or not you are all-in for this team to win.”

    I still think it was unethical for Day to be fired, based on the understanding that he was fired without any discussion with his superiors, without any airing-out of whatever distrust, resentment, or other negative effects on the police force any part of his Facebook post caused or may have caused.

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