WARREN, MA — Selectmen fired a town police officer last month after he admitted he posted a meme on the Fire Department’s Facebook page that could be viewed as insensitive.
Shawn Morin, who was employed as a police officer by the Warren Police Department for 23 months, admitted to posting a meme as a comment on a Fire Department post on Facebook that said firefighters were going to a two-alarm building fire on North Street on May 2. The meme is a static picture based on a video clip on YouTube in which a black woman, in a TV news segment about a different fire in an unidentified locale, describes waking up to the smell of smoke and says, “I said, oh, Lord Jesus, it’s a fire!”
Someone complained about the posting in an email to the Board of Selectmen, according to Mr. Morin.
Mr. Morin was not on duty at the time he posted the meme.
Losing his job “came as a complete shock to me,” Mr. Morin said in an interview Monday night. “According to my letter of termination, it was solely due to the meme.”
“The meme is from that (video) link, which is years old and is not racial or sexual,” resident Jim Gagner said Wednesday. “It’s just funny.” He is a firefighter in town but said later he was not speaking for the Fire Department.
Mr. Morin indicated he will file a grievance.
At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Board of Selectmen, resident Megan Lafko asked selectmen if they can prohibit freedom of speech and violate First Amendment rights. She said town money was being wasted on this issue and other Police Department pursuits.
“I am requesting on behalf of the town to rehire the police officer and just do the right thing,” Ms. Lafko said. “Put an end to it and do what is right.”
She was among about 60 people who attended the meeting. None spoke against Mr. Morin.
Selectmen said Mr. Morin was still in a probationary period for new hires so they were allowed to end his employment.
But Mr. Morin said the probation period is 12 months. Mr. Morin said he marked his two-year job anniversary on Memorial Day.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the board decided that Mr. Morin and the Warren Police Union will go before an executive session of the Board of Selectmen with a grievance at 6 p.m. next Tuesday.
According to police union president Jeffrey Von Dauber, a Warren police officer who was at Tuesday’s meeting to seek Mr. Morin’s reinstatement, the three selectmen voted in executive session May 16 to terminate Mr. Morin’s employment, and he was fired May 18. Officer Von Dauber said he wanted Mr. Morin reinstated with back pay, including compensation for missed details and lost overtime.
Marc Richard, chairman of the Board of Selectmen, said in response to Ms. Lafko’s remarks that this is the way they do business when a complaint arises.
“We had concerns,” Mr. Richard said. “We don’t target the Police Department. Everything to do with town business is public record. That’s why I personally don’t do email or Facebook. I don’t own a cellphone. The social media policy has turned into a nightmare.”
After Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Morin said an unnamed resident had told the selectmen about the meme by email. He wasn’t sure who it was. He went on to say that he intended the meme as a joke, and that it was in reference to a charity police-fire competition that Mr. Morin was hosting at Dean Park. He said the fundraiser had to be canceled as a result of his firing. No one at the meeting mentioned the racial aspect of the meme.
“I have a good rapport with the Fire Department,” Mr. Morin said. “However, it was assumed by the resident that I meant it to harm.
Fire Chief Adam Lavoie said in a separate interview Tuesday morning that he can’t give a personal opinion on an ongoing investigation with the selectmen and police union. Chief Lavoie added that the intent of the Fire Department’s Facebook page is to keep the public aware of their activities and involvement in the community and serves as a way to provide safety information.
“Our Facebook page is a public page not directly managed by the town; however, our administrators monitor the content regularly and remove comments occasionally with the intent of always maintaining a professional and appropriate public forum,” Chief Lavoie said. “We do not allow the general public to post anything to our page and monitor the comment section continuously.”
Chief Lavoie said the meme posted by Mr. Morin was deleted from the page, as was another comment.
In a separate interview Tuesday, Police Chief Bruce Spiewakowski, after seeing the meme, said he believed that better judgment could have been used, and he said he can see how it could be construed as insensitive to the people affected by the Warren fire May 2. According to Firefighter Gagner, the fire victims weren’t black.
“We strive to be empathetic and responsive to the needs and expectations of our community,” Chief Spiewakowski said. “In looking at this issue from a standpoint of how it was posted and interpreted, I think that it lacked empathy, and it could affect the public respect of the department, which would be detrimental towards our mission and goals.”
Chief Spiewakowski said he didn’t receive any formal complaints about the posting, but that in looking back at the Fire Department page he saw that meme postings are a rarity.
When asked whether he has a say in Mr. Morin’s case, Chief Spiewakowski answered that he hasn’t seen all the information or received input from the people affected and concerned, and therefore, he could not comment on how he would have dealt with it.
Officer Von Dauber said Wednesday the police chief’s role in the case is up to the selectmen.
Besides organizing the police-fire competition, Mr. Morin was co-organizer of the Civilian Police Academy with Officer Joseph A. LaFlower.