Police officers and at least one police chief from departments across the United States are facing termination, suspension or other discipline for their proximity to or alleged involvement in a chaotic gathering in Washington on Wednesday that ended in a riot at the U.S. Capitol and left five people dead.
Departments in California, Washington state, and Texas are among those that have announced investigations into their officers based on tips, social media posts and other evidence, though more officers could be identified as evidence emerges in the coming days.
The probes come after an especially fraught year for U.S. policing that saw massive civil rights protests against police violence. They are likely to raise questions about free speech, the expansion of surveillance and public trust in law enforcement, while legal experts warn the scrutiny could have unintended consequences.
In Seattle, Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz confirmed at least two officers had been placed on administrative leave and referred to internal investigations after the department received social media posts showing the officers in Washington Wednesday.
“The Department fully supports all lawful expressions of First Amendment freedom of speech, but the violent mob and events that unfolded at the U.S. Capitol were unlawful and resulted in the death of another police officer,” Diaz said in a statement Thursday. He vowed to fire any officers who were “directly involved in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.”
The two officers were not immediately identified.
Thomas Goldie, a Pittsburgh area officer with the Zelienople Borough Police Department, is under investigation by the borough’s legal department after he was photographed at Wednesday’s rally wearing a hat that read “Trump MAGA 2020 f— your feelings,” CBS Pittsburgh reported.
Zelienople Police Chief Jim Miller told local media that Goldie was not believed to have taken part in the riot inside the Capitol building, but that the matter was under investigation.
In Troy, N.H., an interview by Police Chief Dave Ellis that placed him at Wednesday’s scene was quickly noted by residents in his hometown who called for his resignation.
Speaking to New York Magazine during Wednesday’s protest in D.C., Ellis condemned the break-in at the Capitol and the violence against Capitol police. He later told New Hampshire Public Radio he accepted the outcome of the November election but attended out of support for President Trump, whom he has backed since 2016.
Richard Thackston, head of Troy’s Board of Selectmen, has thus far rebuffed calls for Ellis’ ouster. Neither man could be immediately reached for comment Saturday night.
In Texas, the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office in San Antonio was among the first to announce an internal investigation into one of its employees’ participation.
Roxanne Mathai, a Bexar County sheriff’s lieutenant, is facing an investigation after she posted a video on Facebook of herself at the Capitol draped in a Trump flag; she noted she was not going to enter the Capitol building like others.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said during a virtual news conference Thursday that his staff had forwarded the images of Mathai to the FBI.
Mathai referred questions to her attorney, Hector Cortes, who said he was confident the 46-year-old jail lieutenant would be cleared of wrongdoing because she was present at the rally but didn’t participate in any illegal activity.
“All her posts show that the closest she got to the Capitol was that she was on the lawn at the time the chaos was happening inside, unbeknownst to her,” Cortes told The Post.
Cortes said his bigger fear was the way his client was being unfairly swept up in the tide of anger that has washed over the country in the wake of the violent riot.
Cortes’ concern is one echoed by legal experts like Cardozo law professor Kate Levine, who said the public appetite for officers to face harsh discipline for attending or taking a more hands-on role in the chaos could have unintended consequences that could ultimately harm vulnerable communities that are already over-policed.
“Public pressure does a lot of things, and it would be illogical to discipline people for attending a rally,” said Levine, who writes about policing and the criminal legal system. Levine noted there is a “sharp line” between officers who attended a rally and those who illegally breached the capitol.
The wave of support to tap all available technology, including facial recognition and other tools that have complex privacy concerns, ultimately can work to legitimize and expand the surveillance state, she said.
“And it’s a weight which inevitably falls on the shoulders of the least powerful and most marginalized people,” Levine said. “Within police departments, this time it hits MAGA people, but next time it hits Black Lives Matter.”
In California, the Oakland Police Department has taken the stance that even showing support for the riots on social media could land officers in trouble if it runs afoul of the department’s hate speech guidelines. It has opened a probe into current officers who liked or otherwise expressed support for posts of the riot from a retired Oakland officer.
The department said in a statement Friday it “will not allow any members to engage in or support this type of content and will root out this conduct anywhere within the Department.”
Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who also leads the Major Cities Chiefs Association, said the distinction between acceptable and fireable behavior should be clear in most cases.
Most departments have policies prohibiting officers from participating in political rallies while in uniform, but otherwise they’re able to express political views. Engaging in violence or other behavior that violates department codes — even if it’s not a criminal offense — could lead to termination, including expressing support for criminal or discriminatory acts, Acevedo said.
“If you’re openly liking and supporting comments [conveying] support for people who had nooses, or were screaming about finding the vice president of the United States and harming him and who were caught with molotov cocktails — you’ll likely receive severe sanctions,” he said.
Source: The Washington Post