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Springfield

Can Cops Say That? Police In Trouble Over Divisive Social Media Posts

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Illinois Times
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This story was co-published with Illinois Times. 

Facebook posts by two Springfield police officers last year harmed police operations and community relations. That was the conclusion of internal affairs investigations by the city police department, as well as reactions from capital city activists working to improve the relationship between law enforcement and the people they serve.

In a widely reported incident last May, Officer Andrew Barnes criticized the city’s two Black city council members. In a post on his personal Facebook page, Barnes called Ald. Shawn Gregory a “fucking idiot.” Barnes was pushing back on comments made by Gregory and then-Ald. Doris Turner in which the two criticized how police responded to block parties in Gregory’s majority-Black ward.

Springfield Police Department internal affairs documents show Barnes wasn’t the only officer in trouble over use of social media at the time. In a previously unreported incident, Officer Todd Schwehr responded on Facebook to an image of demonstrators blocking a truck on a highway. Schwehr encouraged violence against the demonstrators, according to documents obtained by NPR Illinois through a public records request.

“We talk about building trust all the time, and those particular statements did not build trust,” said Robert Moore, a retired U.S. marshal and chair of the criminal justice committee for the Illinois NAACP. While the post by Schwehr was not reported by the media until now, the situation with Barnes took the efforts toward better police-community relationships a step back, said Moore.

Following the internal affairs investigations, the police department suspended Barnes for 15 days and mandated he undergo anger management and community-relations training. The department suspended Schwehr for four days.

The Police Benevolent and Protective Association #5, the union that represents Springfield police officers, declined to comment on behalf of Barnes and Schwehr. A spokesman for the police department declined to answer questions on the incidents, saying they are personnel issues, but did offer that the department is committed to improving community relations.

The officers made the Facebook posts during a time when Black Lives Matter demonstrators were taking to the streets in Springfield and around the country after the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis on May 25. Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who kneeled on Floyd’s neck, currently stands trial on charges of manslaughter, second-degree murder and third-degree murder. And once again, the public is debating how to improve police-community relations as well as the responsibility of police to de-escalate situations before they turn deadly. Attorneys who follow police discipline and First Amendment issues say scrutiny of public comments by officers is heightened during times of civil unrest, such as last spring and summer when protests were ongoing and many demonstrators were met by police brutality.

“WIDE OPEN THROTTLE”

On June 2, Officer Schwehr responded to a post on Facebook that showed a group of demonstrators on a highway in front of a truck. Disrupting traffic is a protest tactic that has been used during civil rights uprisings for decades, such as the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. Schwehr wrote the following:

“THIS has GOT TO stop! This is terrorism. What the hell is this driver supposed to do. His choices are. Stop and possibly die. Murder everyone. Wtf. My current employment keeps me from commenting. But as a friend of mine once said. WIDE OPEN THROTTLE.”

Schwehr was written up the next day. The ensuing internal affairs investigation took two and a half months to complete, and it noted he was on duty when he made the comments. The police department determined Schwehr had violated its social media policy and the post “impaired” the work of the department. The department suspended Schwehr for four days in late August and early September, which he used “comp time” for, according to the documents.

That the police department has a social media policy that it’s enforcing is a good thing, said Moore, who meets with Springfield police leadership throughout the year as part of his work with the civil rights organization, NAACP. “Without (media) coverage, without having meetings about it, or without it even being brought to our attention, they voluntarily took the action that was necessary and I applaud them for that,” Moore said of police officials.

Sunshine Clemons, co-founder of Black Lives Matter (BLM) Springfield, said she was disappointed that a police officer would share sentiments as violent and divisive as what was posted on Facebook by Schwehr. She agreed that it was good the post was turned in and said she hopes the discipline deters other officers from making similar social media posts. But she said if anti-racism training was not also a part of the response from the police department, “that was a genuine missed opportunity.”

“There is long, deep-rooted history of antagonism and antagonistic behavior between police and many minority communities, not just Black people,” Clemons said. “There’s a lot of work and healing that needs to happen. And posts like that create resistance and make people not want to work towards that.”

Black Lives Matter protesters march down Sixth Street in downtown Springfield.
Credit Mary Hansen / NPR Illinois
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NPR Illinois
Black Lives Matter protesters march down Sixth Street in downtown Springfield.

On May 31, days before Schwehr made his Facebook comment, BLM Springfield organized a procession with thousands of cars that went around the county building and into the city’s east side to protest the killing of Floyd in Minneapolis and systemic racism. On June 1, high school students led a march and rally in front of the state Capitol. Several thousand residents attended the events. Though there were intelligence reports about potential violence in Springfield and police urged people to stay at home, the looting and violent police interactions that happened in other cities last year didn’t occur in Springfield.

Police officers’ behavior is scrutinized more closely during times of unrest like what happened last spring and summer, said Will Aitchison, an attorney who represents police and firefighter unions in the Pacific Northwest. Aitchison also heads an information service for public safety unions.

Officers “believe that their profession has come under attack wrongly, that the public dialogue generalizes from the specific to everybody in a way that is inappropriate,” Aitchison said. “And they want to defend their profession and their co-workers.”

Aitchison said this need to defend themselves combined with confusion about their First Amendment rights as public employees – as well as nonexistent or poorly defined social media policies from their employers – are reasons some police officers post to Facebook or Twitter in ways that get them in trouble.

After explaining that, as public employees, police officers have narrower First Amendment rights to comment publicly on current events, Aitchison said he encourages officers to think twice about what they share on social media. “Ask yourself before you make a post, do I really need to be saying this? Think about what the consequences of that post might be,” he said of the advice he gives law enforcement. “Public safety employees are going to be more susceptible to discipline than any other type of employee. They better know that, they’d better understand that.”

Facebook fallout

A Facebook post that came under public scrutiny last spring was a comment by Officer Barnes that disparaged the Black members of city council. He made it in reaction to criticism over how police were regularly trying to disperse impromptu parties on the city’s east side.

Around the same time police were regularly intervening over the gatherings on the city’s majority-Black part of town, police on May 20 closed down streets for the majority-white protestors demonstrating against Gov. JB Pritzker’s stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the coronavirus. A few hundred demonstrators marched with a police escort from the Bank of Springfield Center, where members of the Illinois House were meeting, to the Statehouse, where the Illinois Senate was in session. Many noted the stark contrast of treatment when compared to law enforcement breaking up outdoor gatherings on streets and in parks in Ald. Shawn Gregory’s Ward 2.

“The feeling in my community is, ‘Well, dang, our police officers come and block off the streets for people who ain’t even from Springfield, Illinois, and make us go home,’” Gregory said at the May 26 council meeting last year. Gregory said he didn’t condone the parties, but residents were asking for “equal application of the law.” The criticism was repeated by Ald. Kristin DiCenso and Ald. Turner.

Protesters gather outside the Bank of Springfield Center as state lawmakers prepare to convene on May 20
Credit Sam Dunklau / NPR Illinois 91.9 FM
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NPR Illinois 91.9 FM
Protesters gather outside the Bank of Springfield Center as state lawmakers prepare to convene on May 20.

Turner broadened the criticism and said she’d heard reports of parties and gatherings throughout the city, but police were only giving dispersal orders on the east side of town. This was at a time when rules put in place to address the pandemic banned gatherings of more than 10 people. “We cannot continue to in one breath hold ourselves up as the city of Abraham Lincoln and everything that that stands for, but not stand up and take a stand when this type of inequity is going on,” Turner said at the May 26 council meeting.

Police Chief Kenny Winslow defended the police response, saying the protests were constitutionally protected. “This is different from people parked in the middle (of the) road, getting out, partying, drunk,” Winslow said at the time. “They’re just two totally different things.”

Hours later, Barnes – a 15-year veteran of the department who often patrolled the east side – posted to Facebook: “Shawn Gregory is fucking idiot.” In the post, he said the block parties had turned violent, partiers threw things at officers and that crowds in the street could have blocked emergency responders. In the comments of the post, Barnes suggested sending partiers to Ald. Doris Turner’s ward. Turner represented parts of the east and north side before taking an appointment to the state Senate earlier this year.

Gregory and Turner said the vitriol over their criticism of law enforcement spilled over from public posts to their personal lives. Gregory said he received threatening messages. For instance, one person sent an anonymous message telling Gregory, “man my knee is cold … need some nice warm garbage flesh to press it against” – according to a screenshot reviewed by NPR Illinois. Gregory said he shared comments from the person with the police chief and detectives. Both Gregory and Turner said they bought additional security cameras for their homes.

Amid mounting tension, Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder, the police chief and other top brass met with Turner, Gregory, Moore and other faith and community leaders to listen to and address some of the concerns the same week Barnes posted to Facebook. Gregory said he wanted city leaders to understand that calling out the two African American city council people at that time, the way Barnes did, could lead to “serious outrage” from the Black community.

Langfelder and Winslow promised to research cultural competency training for officers and to meet with a wider group of community leaders about ways to improve police-community relations.

City officials acknowledged Barnes’ post on Friday, May 29, and announced he had been put on desk duty pending further investigation. “On behalf of the men and women of the Springfield Police Department, I’m deeply sorry for what my officer did. He messed up and I will hold him accountable,” Winslow said at the council meeting the following Tuesday, June 2.

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Police Chief Kenny Winslow addresses the Springfield City Council.

Winslow also gave an impassioned speech in defense of police that night, in response to both the outrage over the Facebook post and weekend protests. “We’re not perfect. Our community’s not perfect, but we’re damn good,” Winslow said during city council. “We have a damn good police department.” Winslow also voiced his disapproval of the killing of Floyd by Chauvin.

A spokesman for the police department declined to answer recent questions from NPR Illinois about if or when Barnes returned to patrol duty on the east side or elsewhere.

Social media stumbling

Police officers from across the country have gotten into trouble for what they say or share on social media. A joint investigation of Injustice Watch and Buzzfeed reported on a database of verified Facebook accounts of police officers in eight cities created by a group of Philadelphia attorneys. The investigation examined racist and violent posts by officers that the attorneys said undermine trust in law enforcement. Police resignations over controversial social media posts have made repeated headlines.

The Springfield Police Department instituted a new social media policy in January 2018. Officers can express themselves on social media “as private citizens,” the policy notes, “to the degree that their speech does not impair working relationships of this department, impede the performance of duties, or impair discipline and harmony among co-workers.” The policy prohibits Springfield police from using “obscene or sexually explicit language, images or acts and statements or other forms of speech that ridicule, malign, disparage or otherwise express bias against any race, and religion, or any protected class of individuals.” The rules also bar officers from using photos of uniforms or department logos without explicit permission from the chief’s office. Breaking the rules can lead to “progressive discipline.”

Springfield’s union has challenged the discipline case against Barnes, which is pending, according to Deputy Chief Joshua Stuenkel, a spokesperson for the Springfield Police Department. The union declined to answer questions about why it disagrees with the discipline and what outcome it’s seeking.

Officers or unions can sue over discipline over social media posts as a violation of officers’ constitutional rights to free speech. But both Aitchison, the lawyer who represents police unions on the west coast, and Andrew Geronimo, director of the First Amendment clinic at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Ohio, say it is very difficult to win those cases.

“The general test is that government employees have First Amendment rights to speak on what are called matters of public concern, as long as they’re speaking as a private citizen, and it doesn’t affect the functioning of their office,” Geronimo said. Then, the court weighs the value of the speech against the harm the speech does to the functioning of the department.

Geronimo said if an officer’s account clearly identifies them as law enforcement, for example with photos in uniform, then the court may not see the post as coming from a private citizen. He said an example of a strong claim for protected speech would be if an officer had a personal account with no indication he was in law enforcement, and posted about supporting a particular political candidate. If a department disciplined the officer for that, the officer would likely win a court challenge of the discipline. Outside of those circumstances, Geronimo said it would be difficult to make a case.

Policing should be fair and nondiscriminatory, said Rebecca Glenberg, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. And if an officer posts something racist or misogynistic, “it certainly creates a perception in the community that they are not capable of enforcing the law fairly and equitably.” That impairs the ability of the police to do their jobs, and would therefore not be protected speech under the First Amendment, said Glenberg.

Still, Aitchison said the media and public’s “laser-like focus” on officers’ social media has, among other factors, led to a recruitment and retention crisis in law enforcement. He pointed to a Northern Illinois University survey of law enforcement officers that found they were much more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression than the general public. It also found that the majority of officers surveyed said they would not recommend the profession to their children. “The more that we make that job unattractive, including the whole issue of restricting social media posts or whatever it might be, the worse that crisis is going to get,” said Aitchison.

Reforming police-community relationships

The Springfield Police Department has made strides in recruiting and hiring more officers of color, Moore said – which is one needed step in the right direction. The number of police officers who are people of color has increased from 17 in 2013 to 29 in 2021, according to city numbers. Moore consulted with the department in 2016 and 2017, in part on how to make the department more inclusive. And he said the commitment by police leadership is solid, but there’s still work to be done.

“We need the community to have a better relationship with our officers that patrol our cities, and our precincts, and our roadways,” Moore said. One of the 10 Shared Principles, released in 2018, which he helped create with the Illinois NAACP and the Illinois Association of Chiefs of Police, is developing relationships on a “street level” and having police officers interact with the community outside of instances where they are responding to alleged crimes. Moore said he’d like to see a similar commitment from the police union to building better relationships.

“Community relations involves every officer and some of the best examples include our officers who go out on their own to meet with members in their communities,” said Stuenkel, on behalf of the city police department, in an emailed statement. He said in addition to police officers walking neighborhoods and talking to residents, the department encourages officers to serve as mentors in schools, while the police union holds events like a toy drive for kids at Christmas.

While the police union declined to answer questions sent by NPR Illinois about the Facebook postings by officers Barnes and Schwehr, the dispute over the disciplinary case against Barnes is still pending.

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