Detroit Police Grapple With Officers’ Social Media Missteps

Detroit — Weeks before a white rookie Detroit police officer was fired last year for a racially insensitive Snapchat post, a black sergeant reposted an article on Facebook bearing the headline: “White Americans are the biggest terror threat in the United States.”

The sergeant, who was assigned to the unit that investigates officers’ use of force, was transferred to another command but received no further punishment.

Another officer in 2016 posted a Facebook missive referring to the gay victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando as “sissies.” He was not disciplined.

Detroit cops who violated the department’s social media policy in recent years have received varying levels of punishment — from termination to no discipline at all.

The policy was implemented in March 2011 after an officer was put on desk duty for posting a photo of a crime scene on Facebook. 

“When using social media, e.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc., department members shall be mindful that their … postings become part of the worldwide electronic domain,” the policy reads. “Therefore, adherence to the Detroit Police Department’s Code of Conduct policy is required when utilizing social media.”

Under the code of conduct, officers are required to maintain professional decorum on or off duty and avoid actions that could embarrass the department.

The Detroit department isn’t alone in grappling with fallout from officers’ social media posts. Last month, for instance, Philadelphia’s police commissioner put 72 officers on administrative duty amid a national group’s accusation that cops in at least five states had posted racist and anti-Muslim comments online. 

Former Michigan State Police director Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue faced calls for her resignation in fall 2017 after sharing a post on her Facebook pagemocking “degenerate” professional football players for silent protests during the national anthem. Gov. Rick Snyder, who left office at the end of last year, rejected those calls but docked her five days’ pay.

Detroit police Chief James Craig said problems with former internal affairs commanders and differences in the officers’ discipline histories are largely responsible for the disparity in discipline.

“There were some internal affairs cases that fell into black holes,” Craig said. “That was a big part of the issues we were having over there.”

In April, Craig told The Detroit News he was troubled by lack of oversight in the Professional Standards Section, prompting him to change the unit’s management structure.

One of the cases Craig said was mishandled involved Sgt. Kerrie Petties, who in 2016 posted messages to Facebook that violated the department’s social media policy.

After the June 12, 2016, shooting at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando that left 49 people dead, Petties posted: “Shout out to the American Politician for going bananas over a bunch of sissies killed in a club, but when church going God fearing people were murdered in a church it was business as usual.”

In another 2016 Facebook post, Petties, who is black, used a slur to refer to other African Americans.

In the same post, Petties wrote: “A White boy walks into a house of worship and commits and act of terrorism, and he is taken into custody. Angry ass, dysfunctional White men, who’s (sic) lives are impetant (sic), fruitless, and dry in the face of all the damn advantages that White America provides for them, they kill at will.”

Cmdr. Elaine Bryant, who became commanding officer of the Professional Standards Section in January as part of Craig’s restructuring of the unit, said: “That case fell through the cracks. An investigation was conducted and completed, and discipline was recommended. I don’t know why the case was never forwarded to the Discipline Section.”

Bryant said Petties took a lengthy medical leave after his case was investigated. She said when she began reviewing old cases after she assumed command, she found nobody had followed up on the investigator’s recommendation that Petties be disciplined.

After discovering the problem, Bryant said: “We were waiting on him to return to work in order to serve him (with a discipline notice). He returned to work (two weeks ago), but now he’s retiring (this week), so there’s really nothing we can do. But we did try to adjudicate his case.”

The issue of Detroit cops’ social media use made headlines earlier this year, when former officers Gary Steele and Michael Garrison were fired after Steele posted a Snapchat video mocking black motorist Ariel Moore. 

Steele and Garrison, white officers who worked in the 6th Precinct, are heard on the video taunting Moore after they pulled her over and impounded her car Jan. 29 on Detroit’s west side.

Bryant said Steele and Garrison were guilty of other infractions besides their social media posts.

“They had other things on their record, so we consider the totality of the circumstances, not just the social media posts,” Bryant said. “They were ultimately fired because of issues with untruthfulness.”

In September 2018, white probationary officer Sean Bostwick was fired after he posted on Snapchat: “Another night to Rangel (sic) up these zoo animals.”

Because Bostwick was on probation, Craig said he was able to fire him without a discipline hearing, which tenured employees are entitled to under labor agreements with the Detroit Police Officers Association and Lieutenants and Sergeants Association unions.

Two weeks before Bostwick’s termination, Sgt. Larry Campbell reposted the article on Facebook calling white men terrorists. He wrote above the article: “The truth isn’t popular.”

Internal affairs investigators recommended Campbell be disciplined, but the case was dismissed during an appeal, Bryant said.

“His case was appealed (in November 2018), and the case was dismissed at the appeal hearing,” Bryant said. “I don’t know why the case was dismissed.

“We can’t go back and discipline officers on these cases that have already been heard and adjudicated,” she said. “But (Campbell) was transferred out of that unit.”

Mark Young, president of the Lieutenants and Sergeants Association, declined to comment about specific cases because he said he hadn’t seen the posts by members of his union, Campbell and Petties.

But, Young added: “I think everyone should be careful what they post on social media, because they could offend citizens, and these are the people we risk our lives for. So why would we want to offend them?”

Detroit Police Officers Association union officials did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Although the two officers who avoided discipline are African American, Bryant said race was not a factor, pointing out that white officers who violated the social media policy also have kept their jobs.

Among them was Nate Weekley, who was demoted in 2016 after posting on Facebook that Black Lives Matter members were “racists” and “terrorists.” He later regained his detective rank. 

Officer Mario White, who is black, is awaiting discipline for several Facebook posts last year, Bryant said. One of the messages was posted after Arizona Sen. John McCain died on Aug. 25, 2018.

White posted a picture of former President George H.W. Bush and wrote: “RIP John McCain. I want to apologize for posting the wrong photo. Certain people look alike to me and Fox News.”

After a black woman climbed the Statue of Liberty on July 4, 2018, to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, White wrote: “More ignorance… . Wonder if she climbed her dumb black ass up there to protest mass incarceration of her own people?”

In other posts, White referred to Detroit citizens as “hood rats,” and mocked a mentally ill woman.

“He was found guilty of several violations, and he’ll get a chance to appeal,” Bryant said. “The case is still being adjudicated.”

In what police officials say is another social media violation, Officer Royer Hernandez in 2017 posted to Facebook a photo of a rapper who’d been gunned down while sitting in his car on Detroit’s east side.

Hernandez was among the officers who responded to the October 2017 shooting death of 29-year-old Rodney Yeargin, whose stage name was Doughboy Ric. Police officials say Hernandez removed a sheet covering the victim’s face at the crime scene, snapped a cellphone picture, and posted it on Facebook. 

Hernandez was suspended for 10 days, Bryant said. “Six of the days were served immediately, and he was allowed to hold the other four in abeyance for two years,” she said.

Bryant said investigators also forwarded Hernandez’s case to Wayne County prosecutors. “They determined there wasn’t enough evidence to bring charges,” she said.