An Orlando police officer who posted an expletive-laden tirade on Facebook in 2017 will face the 80-hour suspension initially handed to him by the department, an arbitrator ruled last month.
The ruling comes months after the arbitration hearing for the officer, Robert Schellhorn, in which he testified that an “emotional buildup” over recent police deaths led to the August 2017 social media rant, and asked that his discipline be reduced to 16 hours.
Arbitrator Phillip LaPorte sided against the union representing Schellhorn, saying the officer’s “trauma does not give him license to violate OPD policies and procedures” by using forms of speech “that ridicule, malign, disparage, or otherwise express bias against any race, religion, or any protected class of individuals.”
As the losing party, the union will have to pay any costs associated with the arbitration.
The Internal Affairs investigation that led to Schellhorn’s suspension was sparked by citizen complaints over his posts. In Facebook comments, Schellhorn called professional athletes “overpaid thugs” and Heather Heyer, the woman killed while protesting a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., “an asshole killed by another asshole.”
While referring to athletes who protest racial injustice, such as LeBron James, Michael Bennett and Collin Kaepernick, he asked “what exactly are the ‘black rights’ that these useless savages are standing up for???”
His comments were in response to a post shared by Shawn Dunlap, president of the Fraternal Order of Police chapter that represents OPD cops, which said, “Where are the athletes?… When will they use their voice to denounce violence aimed at Law Enforcement???????”
In a back-and-forth with another commenter, Schellhorn called Michael Brown, the black man killed in 2014 by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., a “thug piece of [expletive], who was rightfully shot while attacking a police officer.”
Schellhorn also called the Facebook commenter a “f—— piece of s—” and joked that another commenter on the thread needed “manpax manpons.”
The latter comment “managed to offend both men and women in one concise post,” LaPorte wrote in his decision.
The tirade sparked outrage from local activists, who held a rally in front of City Hall last year and called on city council members at a meeting afterward to tell Schellhorn to resign. Commissioners sympathized, but said they didn’t have the legal authority to impose punishment on an officer who had already been disciplined.
At an arbitration hearing in December, Schellhorn said he regretted using “unbelievably hateful language” in the posts, saying he was emotional after the deaths of two Kissimmee police officers, which triggered memories of the January 2017 death of OPD Lt. Debra Clayton, who Schellhorn said he performed CPR on when she was shot.
Union representatives argued in grievances that an 80-hour suspension was too harsh, and called on witnesses during the arbitration hearing who described Schellhorn as a hard-working officer with little prior discipline. The union also cited at the arbitration previous examples of officers receiving lighter punishments for similar offenses.
LaPorte wrote that the union’s examples were not comparable to Schellhorn’s case because, in one, the employee was a community service officer, not a sworn cop. The other, which involved an officer who got into a heated argument with a citizen during a traffic stop, happened in the “heat of the moment,” LaPorte said, which was unlike Schellhorn’s case, which happened publicly online over a period of two days.
He also said Schellhorn could have gone to counseling through the department for the emotional issues he was experiencing.
“Other OPD officerswere facing similar frustrations with a perceived lack of public support and did notexpress speech that would be considered reckless or irresponsible,” he wrote.
The incident prompted OPD to amend its social media policy to include discipline up to termination for violations.
Two months before the Facebook rant, Schellhorn was recorded on his body camera referring to a group of mostly black and Hispanic club-goers at the LGBT nightclub Parliament House as “savages” and using pepper spray on them. “This is typically Sunday night, it’s just busy,” Schellhorn was heard saying to another officer. “All these [expletive] savages that [expletive] come out.”
An arbitrator in April wiped an 80-hour suspension initially handed to Schellhorn for that incident.