In putting two officers on leave, Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole signaled she will not tolerate behavior that threatens the federally mandated reform effort she inherited since becoming chief in June.
Seattle police officers have been put on notice: Be careful what you post on social media.
Twice within the past week, Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole has put officers on paid leave after inflammatory comments appeared under their names on Facebook and Twitter.
The latest action was announced in a departmentwide email Friday night, only hours after the disclosure of tweets in which a veteran officer ranted about race, gays, President Obama and other subjects.
O’Toole’s orders signal that the former Boston police commissioner will move swiftly when she sees behavior that threatens the federally mandated reform effort she inherited when she became Seattle’s chief in June. The department is under a court-ordered consent decree to curb excessive force and biased policing.
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“I am particularly disappointed by these incidents because they undermine community trust, the reputation of the SPD and the outstanding work of many professional, hardworking officers,” O’Toole said in the Friday night email. “I will continue to take decisive action against this type of behavior. I expect all SPD members to demonstrate professionalism, common sense and good judgment. “
As a result of O’Toole’s action Friday, Officer Sam Byrd was sent home and placed on administrative leave while the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) looks into the matter.
Three days earlier, Officer Cynthia Whitlatch was put on the same status amid an internal investigation into her conduct.
Whitlatch, who is white, attracted attention two weeks ago when it was disclosed she had arrested a 69-year-old black man July 9 who was carrying a golf club he used as a cane but that she saw as a weapon.
Within hours of that disclosure, it was revealed that Whitlatch’s Facebook page last summer included racially charged comments relating to the turmoil that erupted in Ferguson, Mo., where a young African-American man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed Aug. 9 by a white police officer.
O’Toole originally placed Whitlatch, 47, on desk duty Jan. 29, saying she wanted her to continue performing work on behalf of taxpayers. But O’Toole sent Whitlatch home Tuesday after new allegations emerged raising questions about her racial views and other matters.
In Friday’s email, O’Toole did not identify Byrd by name. A department official confirmed that Byrd’s leave stemmed from a story posted on The Stranger newspaper’s website Friday about his social-media posts.
The Stranger story identified a Twitter feed listed, until recently, under Byrd’s name, and that has since been made private.
As recounted in the article, Byrd’s comments included:
“the Feds will look for any reason to take over local law enforcement. If the facts aren’t there, the facts are fabricated”; there are “no repercussions for crime” in Seattle; gays in Seattle “have more rights and protections than I do”; Mexico is a “third world cesspool”; “social justice is nothing more than racism”; Barack Obama “know[s] more about basketball than foreign policy.”
The comments also stated that Seattle Seahawk Marshawn Lynch cannot “speak properly”; that the Department of Justice will “fabricate evidence” in its investigation of police brutality in Ferguson [Mo.]; that local protesters don’t protest “when blacks kill blacks by the thousands every year”; “People are too busy looting” for the cops’ side of the story to be told in Ferguson; and “There’s no incentive to own a business or shop in Seattle” because of the new minimum-wage law.
Byrd, 43, who is white, joined the police department in 2001.
O’Toole, in her email, noted the department has been working with the Seattle City Attorney’s Office on a draft social-media policy since August.
“I have expedited the draft … ,” O’Toole wrote, saying it has been sent to federal officials working with the city to carry out reforms.
Anne Levinson, the OPA’s auditor, has previously recommended that the department develop an off-duty social-media policy that balances free speech against comments that diminish public trust in the department or officers.
Late Friday afternoon, Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, sent an email to about 1,260 members advising them to be “mindful of the content of your social media postings.”
Smith listed Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and other online forums as those that should be included.
“This is very important, unless you wish to see the content of your social media postings on the front page of The Seattle Times or on the Stranger Slog,” he wrote. “Your First Amendment rights as an American is curtailed when your speech intersects with your job as a public employee.
“You can read the United States Supreme Court case Garcetti V. Ceballos for further clarification of the limitations of your First Amendment rights as it pertains to your employment as a police officer,” Smith added. “Please do not let something that feels good to type cost you a few days off or your job.”
On the Facebook account of Whitlatch, the officer involved in the golf-club arrest, last summer’s posting referred to “black peoples (sic) paranoia” in assuming whites are “out to get them,” and cited the Ferguson upheaval.
“I was shocked and disappointed to read her comments,” O’Toole said when she placed Whitlatch on desk duty. “We are working to reform the Seattle Police Department, and behavior of this nature seriously undermines our efforts.”
The OPA is looking into the golf-club matter, along with new allegations about Whitlatch’s past conduct. The OPA previously determined the Facebook post involved off-duty conduct and referred it for supervisory counseling.