After the fatal shooting last month of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, a national furor erupted around race and police militarization. Lots of people jumped into the fray on social media. Among them was Seattle Police Department sergeant Christopher Hall, a 15-year veteran of the force who supervises beat cops at SPD's West Precinct.
Hall rushed to the defense of Wilson, who is now the subject of a grand-jury investigation, on his personal Facebook page, which was open to the public at the time. Witnesses to the shooting have said Brown had his hands up at the time of his death. But Hall suggested Brown deserved to get shot if he robbed a store or punched a police officer.
"In light of the Ferguson hashtag, DontShoot, I'm starting the hashtag #DontRobStores and #Dontpunchcops," Hall wrote on August 19. He made his profile picture an "I Support Darren Wilson" badge. In another post, he wrote, "If you don't like the 'militarized' police, then don't commit crimes," adding that "regardless of how you feel about the police, the sheepdogs will continue to protect the resentful sheep from the wolves." And he was infuriated, judging by his Facebook comments, by the Obama administration's response to the shooting and subsequent protests in Ferguson. On August 18, he accused President Obama of engaging in "overt racism" for sending condolences to Michael Brown's family.
SPD officials say Hall could be placed under investigation for his online remarks. That decision rests with new Seattle police chief Kathleen O'Toole, who has promised to "restore public trust" in the troubled department as part of sweeping reforms to curb patterns of excessive force and discriminatory policing. Police spokesman Sean Whitcomb says the chief is "very interested" in the subject of "embarrassing Facebook rants," and SPD's one-page social-media policy is currently being reviewed.
King County sheriff John Urquhart says that he's had to deal multiple times with problematic Facebook comments made by his officers. "From time to time, officers say stupid things," Urquhart explains. "They say things that embarrass the department, the profession, and most importantly, they embarrass themselves. And it drives me crazy that they don't realize that." He also says that due to union agreements, he can't necessarily discipline officers for social-media posts. But, he adds, "I'm not going to ignore it." Just last week, he asked a precinct commander to talk to an officer about some unacceptable online postings. Urquhart says he received a contrite apology from the officer in question.
Reached by phone at his West Precinct desk last week, Hall declined to explain his comments. "I don't know you, and I have no interest in discussing it with you," he said flatly. "I have the right to an opinion, don't I?"
"This isn't about speech," responds Phil Mocek, cofounder of police watchdog group Seattle Privacy Coalition. "It's about Christopher Hall's power-tripping derision for the people he is employed to serve and to protect. Nobody here is suggesting depriving anyone of his or her right to speak freely, about politics or about anything else.
"Some people are asserting that Mr. Hall has, by expressing himself, demonstrated an attitude that indicates that he is not fit for the job of police officer in Seattle," Mocek said. "I agree."
There's an ongoing debate around how and when views expressed publicly on social media impact people in the workplace, both in the private and public sector. But when it comes to policing, online rants could be used in a courtroom to discredit police investigations. In 2009, a defense attorney used an arresting NYPD officer's Myspace account—his mood was listed as "devious"—as evidence, and his client was acquitted of a felony unlawful weapons possession charge.
Seattle Police Officers' Guild president Ron Smith vehemently disagrees with Hall's statements about police militarization. "There's no room for that type of rhetoric," he said when I read him some of Hall's comments. "I don't think it's helpful to any police officer anywhere. Because we don't come to work to be militarized."
But, Smith concluded, "I don't think this violates any policy per se... I just think everybody, including him, needs to be mindful of the perception created surrounding your comments in light of your profession."
"If it's not something you want people to read on the Slog [The Stranger's blog]," Smith added, "don't say it."