A few days after the Fourth of July, a Wilmington police officer logged onto his Facebook account and offered some advice to his 1,346 friends.
“A word to the wise never get drunk and trip off of meds and call a cop a ‘N’ results broken jaw and criminal charges......WPD for life,” wrote Anthony Easterling, who is black.
After initially saying the post would only concern him if somebody filed a complaint, Wilmington police Chief Michael Szczerba reversed course this past week and called for the department’s Office of Professional Standards to review the online message.
Szczerba declined to comment further and said he had no information about what prompted Easterling’s post. Other city officials also declined to comment about whether the post was appropriate, citing a lack of knowledge about what inspired it.
The city can not release Easterling’s rank or time of service because, under the state’s Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights, it is prohibited from issuing that information while he is under an internal investigation, said Rich Neumann, communications director for Mayor James M. Baker.
Despite the officials’ reticence, Easterling’s post provided an example of the blurred line between police officers’ duties as public servants and their life as private citizens.
That line has been complicated by social media, where messages intended for friends and family can be seen by strangers, who police have sworn to protect, said Mark Marshall, the sheriff of Isle of Wight County in Virginia and the past president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
“You just don’t get to turn on or turn off being a police officer,” Marshall said.
Inappropriate posts cannot only embarrass a department, they can also provide fodder for opportunistic defense attorneys looking to impeach an officer’s testimony, Marshall said.
The city has released no information about what prompted Easterling’s post. The officer did not return multiple telephone messages seeking comment, and the city denied a request made under the state’s Freedom of Information Act for police or incident reports related to the Facebook post.
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“This matter is being reviewed by the city as a personnel issue, therefore we have no further comment at this time,” Neumann said.
Wilmington Councilwoman Loretta Walsh, chairwoman of the city’s public safety committee, downplayed Easterling’s words.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal,” she said.
Walsh spoke with Easterling after she learned of the post, and he told her he did not hit anyone, she said. The officer laughed and described the message as him “letting off pressure on Facebook” after someone constantly referred to him with the N word, Walsh said.
Easterling would not do anything to risk his job, said Walsh, who described him as a “fine police officer.”
“I knew it was a complete exaggeration because I know this officer’s demeanor, and he would not physically harm someone because someone used a derogatory term on him,” Walsh said. “I know it was more just Facebook talk than anything.”
That doesn’t matter, Marshall said.
“Whether the comments are grounded in fact or fiction is irrelevant,” he said. “It’s the fact that it’s actually said and out there.”
Robert Williams, a city council candidate who supervised Easterling during his former career with the Wilmington Police Department, said the officer is a former Marine with a track record of “excellent judgment.”
“Anthony is probably one of the best community officers that I know,” Williams said.
Easterling’s Facebook profile recently included a large photo of him wielding a shotgun while standing behind the open door of a Wilmington police cruiser. That photo was removed this past week, replaced with what appeared to be a family photo of Easterling and two girls with milk mustaches on their faces.
The post in question has since been removed, too, but not before at least 50 people clicked a button saying they “liked” it. More than 20 people posted their own comments.
City Council President Norman D. Griffiths, a former Washington D.C., police officer and member of the public safety committee, did not want to pre-empt the internal review by saying whether he thought discipline is necessary.
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The review would likely address both the Facebook and the underlying incident that prompted it, he said.
Wilmington had no social media policy at the time of Easterling’s post. The city’s administrative board approved a policy July 10, though John Rago, deputy chief of staff for the mayor, said it was not a response to Easterling’s post and had been in the works “the past few months.”
The policy largely aims to prohibit city employees from using personal social media accounts on public time, but says “under no circumstances should employees present the City of Wilmington to the public in a manner that diminishes its standing within the community.”
Wilmington police have no specific policy about officers’ use of social media, Szczerba said. Neither does the New Castle County Police Department. Delaware State Police have drafted a policy, but it has not been officially implemented, said Sgt. Paul Shavack, director of public information.
A 2011 survey of 800 law enforcement agencies conducted by the IACP found that 88 percent of the agencies used social media, mostly for investigations. Almost half of those agencies have a social media policy, the survey found.
The IACP’s model policy prohibits speech that could reflect behavior that could be considered reckless or irresponsible, as well as speech that could impeach an officer’s testimony.
Before his election to the sheriff’s office, Marshall served as police chief in Smithfield, Va., and implemented a social media policy that prohibited online postings about department operations after a couple of incidents in his department.
In one case, an officer involved in a foot chase with a suspect posted he had a “great time” at work. Another officer posted a photo of her tattoo.
“You better have a policy or you’re going to have problems,” Marshall said.
State Rep. Dennis P. Williams, a former city police officer and another candidate for Wilmington’s mayor, said Easterling’s words could alarm residents or send a message that city police officers are “going to go out and assault people.”
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“You can’t say that kind of stuff,” Williams said.
Two other candidates — Bill Montgomery and Kevin F. Kelley Sr. — said people must be careful what they post online. After a string of homicides this summer, Montgomery has campaigned to improve relationships between the community and police as the city implements a new policing strategy.
“I don’t know that it helps that cause at all,” Montgomery said of the Facebook post.
With no policy in place when Easterling made the post, it was the officer’s right to post his thoughts, Kelley said.
“Do you agree with it or not, that’s for you to decide,” he added.
But Ken Haas, a professor of criminology at the University of Delaware, said Easterling would have a hard time arguing his First Amendment rights were violated if the city’s internal review ended with sanctions against the officer. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that public agencies need only an “adequate” justification to punish an employee for off-duty comments, he explained.
“At a time when community relations is more important than ever in a city that has astonishing rates of violence and a near sense of panic over the violence, I would say that his constitutional protections are very limited,” Haas said.
Social media can help police build relationships with the community, said James Nolan, a former city police officer who is now a professor at West Virginia University. But just as conversations overhead at a local watering hole can provide insight into someone’s personality, so can something written on Facebook, he said.
“I don’t think police officers in general – even at the police club at night while they’re drinking – should talk about hurting people,” Nolan said.
“So in general, it’s not a good thing anyway. Social media’s just the vehicle sometimes now,” he added.
Mayoral candidate Robert Bovell, a bail bondsman, said he would call for an internal investigation about the post and possibly offer counseling to the officer.
Bovell likened the Facebook indicdent to police officers pulling over a woman for a traffic violation, then saying they let her off because she had a “nice set of boobs.” Like other posts that could reflect on the city negatively, that could be used against the city, he said.
Another candidate, Scott R. Spencer, would not comment specifically on the post because, he said, he didn’t know the veracity of it.