AURORA, Colo. (KDVR) — A high-ranking Aurora fire official is under investigation for private Facebook posts that some current and former firefighters found offensive and racially insensitive.
“We are disappointed but not surprised by Operations Chief Stephen McInerny’s Facebook post,” said the Colorado Black Professional Firefighters organization, a group that represents fire personnel in various Colorado cities. “We support every American’s First Amendment right and their freedom to exercise their rights, but given our nation’s social climate and the recent event with Elijah McClain in the City of Aurora, we feel it is irresponsible for anyone holding a high position to make such a post.”
A screengrab of an August 2020 re-post on McInerny’s page depicts a man in a military uniform with the caption, “This is what a HERO looks like…unlike the whiny pathetic professional athletes that think they are special.”
At least one retired Aurora firefighter, Isadell Posey, expressed concern with the post by commenting on the thread, “You will never understand that kneeling is not about a flag, it has always been about the mistreatment of black people by the police. And Steve for you to be the operation Chief that you would repost this.”
Posey did not return FOX31’s call to discuss his own posts, but the CBPFF confirmed his concerns.
“To our understanding, the City of Aurora has been made aware of the issue and we are expecting a fair and proper investigation and will await the finding,” the group said in a written statement.
Emails obtained by the FOX31 Problem Solvers indicate the group met with the fire chief, Fernando M. Gray, Sr. and with McInerny in September to discuss McInerny’s social media behavior.
“All communications and documents related to complaints against Deputy Chief McInerny are part of an ongoing investigation, and in order to ensure the integrity of the investigatory process, the City of Aurora does not comment on ongoing investigations or personnel matters,” said Sherri Jo Stowell, an Aurora Fire Rescue spokesperson.
In June, Gray issued a memo cautioning his staff about their presence on social media.
“Be aware that as public employees, department personnel are cautioned that their speech either on or off duty reflects upon the department and the organization. We’ve seen examples from across the country of public safety employees who express themselves on social media and ultimately negatively impact their agency,” the notice said.
Gray also encouraged staff to review the department’s social media policy which reminds personnel that their speech on or off duty “may not necessarily be protected speech under the First Amendment.”
According to Alan Chen, a law professor at the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law, public employees have free speech rights to speak out on matters of public concern, but they do not have the same rights as a private citizen would.
“Public employers, the agencies for which these employees work, are entitled to maintain an efficient, effective, and functioning workplace, and so the employee’s speech rights are balanced against the employer’s right to maintain an efficient workplace where people are getting along and working together smoothly,” he said.
Chen said every case must be weighed independently, but a public leader’s private comments could have a disruptive impact at the workplace.
“I think that a leader making a controversial statement might be more likely to cause disruption in the workplace because people look to that person to maintain authority and discipline within the department,” said Chen. “I think it would weigh differently than some subordinate who people might pay less attention to.”
In 2018, the City of Aurora settled a racial discrimination case with four minority firefighters, including three Black men. The city also agreed to diversity training.
“There was a monetary settlement, but if there is not change that is affected after that, nothing will change,” said Sean Thomas, one of the plaintiffs in the suit who is now a New Orleans firefighter.
Thomas said the suit was not based on any of the actions of the current Aurora Fire Rescue leadership. However, Thomas said he would feel uncomfortable going into a fire with a leader who makes controversial comments online.
“I believe if he’s held personally accountable and there are severe, strict ramifications, the next person will think twice before they do such a thing,” he said.
Stowell said the City of Aurora has mobilized a group called the Aurora Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team, and a number of fire personnel have volunteered to encourage internal conversations and enhance a productive work culture.
“The City of Aurora and specifically Aurora Fire Rescue has championed the approach of having difficult and courageous conversations about inclusiveness at all levels of the department,” Stowell said.