Hopewell Township Police Officer Sara Erwin created the Facebook post that would get her fired on June 1, 2020.
George Floyd was killed one week earlier in Minneapolis, prompting protests across the country. The issue of American policing was again at the forefront of the nation, and so was the Black Lives Matter movement.
Erwin called Black Lives Matter protesters, “terrorists.”
Her supervisor in the patrol unit, Sgt. Mandy Grey, liked the post with the “love” button the same day, and made a similar post later on June 1, in which she called Black Likes Matter a “terrorist group.”
For a week, though, the posts were just that, social media posts that lived on the internet like millions of others.
It was not until June 8 that an internal affairs investigation commenced against Grey and Erwin, spurred by an old fashioned tip: an anonymous letter sent to the police chief with a printed copy of Erwin’s post. It said the officer’s post could be a violation of departmental policies.
Then Police Chief Lance Maloney, who received the letter, brought it to Lt. William Springer, the internal affairs investigator, at about 2:15 p.m. that day. Springer started investigating at 2:30 p.m.
A year after that meeting, the case of Erwin and Grey has exploded into a national story, and is likely to last maybe a year more, with underway appeals and a planned lawsuit.
Documents attached to their appeals, filed in Superior Court of Mercer County, give a glimpse into how police authorities investigated the two, 20-year cops and how the township council arrived at Erwin’s firing and Grey’s suspension and demotion in late April.
The documents, which include a police internal affairs summary as well as the summary of a hearing officer who recommended the punishment, are filled with municipal codes, case law and legal parlance. They do not mention politics.
But Erwin and Grey’s lawyer, Frank Crivelli, said that’s what this case is about.
He believes the township council was under an “incredible amount of political pressure” following the Floyd protests. The five-member council are all Democrats, Crivelli pointed out.
“I think they got caught up in the entire Black Lives Matter movement, unjustifiably, and I think that their actions were certainly motivated by their political beliefs,” Crivelli said. “And I think they ignored the law.”
Ellen Horn, the lawyer for Hopewell Township, said the township does not comment on pending litigation.
The Tip & Investigation
Springer, in his internal affairs investigation, did not trace the source of the letter. It had no return address, and he had no mechanism to do so. It was postmarked in Trenton.
Springer looked for Erwin’s post on Facebook, but could not initially see it due to privacy settings. He eventually found it with the help of another member of the department.
It said: “Last night as I left for work I had my two kids crying for me not to go to work. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I did last night. And then I watched people I know and others I care about going into harms way. I love my police family like my own. So when you share posts and things on Facebook I’d really appreciate if you’d THINK before doing so. I’ve seen so many black lives matter [sic] hashtags in these posts. Just to let you know — they are terrorists. They hate me. They hate my uniform. They don’t care if I die.”
Springer then saw Grey had liked the post.
The then saw Grey’s post, which was a comment to another post, and said:
“As per Sara’s post you were suppose [sic] to think before commenting or posting. I have so much to say but I will just touch a couple of things. BLM the organization has been determined to be an organized, bought, and paid for terrorist group. This is what Sara is referencing. She is not saying the black race doesn’t matter.”
In addition to opening an internal investigation, Springer also notified the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office. An office spokesperson said last month they found no criminality in the matter and told Hopewell to proceed.
Both officers were suspended with pay on June 8, and Springer eventually interviewed both officers. Both admitted they made their posts, and had not had any training on Black Lives Matter nor any contact with members of the movement.
In her interview, Grey said she saw Erwin’s Facebook post after arriving home from work and was concerned for her well-being. She clicked the love button on the post to show support for a subordinate officer. She said she didn’t believe that members Black Lives Matter were terrorists, however, “she believed that a portion of the movement had changed and that certain members had hijacked the cause,” the documents say.
Grey acknowledged that her “love” emoji on Erwin’s post may have portrayed the police department in a negative light and that it has the potential to affect its public perception.
In her interview, “Erwin expressed her frustration with the Black Lives Matter movement amidst some purported terrorist activities and said there are some dangerous people involved with certain factions of the group,” the documents say.
“However, Officer Erwin did not believe that her post portrayed the [police department] in a negative light. She did acknowledge that her post could be viewed negatively, but that was not her intent,” the documents say.
The internal affairs investigation concluded on June 17 and Springer found both officers violated several departmental policies, including the social media policy.
In a summary of the charges, Maloney, the police chief, alleged the posts expressed views that could be “insulting or offensive” to others or the public.
Although both were off duty at the time, their words mattered, the chief wrote, and exposed the Hopewell police department to public criticism, complaints and protests, and brought discredit, negativity and an undermining of the police’s public trust and public perception.
The Hearings & Punishment
Over two days in October, Springer was the only witness called in the officers’ hearings. (Maloney had since retired, and Springer was named acting chief.)
He expanded on the investigation, testifying on direct and cross examination that Grey and Erwin were forthright with him and both expressed remorse for their posts. He did not believe the Facebook posts were made with malice and does not believe Grey or Erwin are racists, he testified.
Springer also testified that based on his education and experience, Black Lives Matter is not on any terrorist watch groups, and had additional concerns with Grey’s post because, in addition to being a negative comment toward a protective class, it could be considered “inflammatory.”
Grey’s post was unnecessarily adding fuel to the fire, and she should have reported Erwin’s post up the chain of command, he said.
In his opinion, Springer said he did not believe the incidents rose to major discipline. By then, Springer said while the posts brought discredit to the department, but he thought they’d “moved past it.”
He said the officers should get a written reprimand and a five-day suspension. Grey was a little more culpable than Erwin, Springer testified, because of Grey’s “banter back and forth” on Facebook.
The hearing officer, lawyer Brian Trelease, saw it differently.
First, he sustained the internal affairs charges and slammed the officers’ actions, saying there was “no doubt” the Facebook posts cast the department in a negative light and “subverted” the department’s good order. The posts “called into question the motives and discriminatory beliefs” of Grey and Erwin, and marred their ability to “interact in good faith with members of the public.”
“It is this taint that will forever impair the officers’ credibility and dependability in servicing the public as law enforcement officers; a taint that will be directly attributable to both the Department and the Township should the officers remain employed,” Trelease wrote.
He also said the posts do not fall under First Amendment freedom of speech protection due to case law showing governmental agencies have a greater ability in regulating speech to ensure government services to the public.
Moreover, many New Jersey municipalities use a principle called “progressive discipline” with public employees, which, as its name suggests, seeks to punish employees more for habitual or repeated infractions, and minimize them for exemplary employees.
Crivelli has said Grey and Erwin had never been investigated by internal affairs in their 20 years on the job, which Trelease also noted.
Trelease, though, said in his study of prior municipal law, progressive discipline can be put aside for severe offenses, and this is one such case.
“I find the officers’ actions to be so severe that the maximum penalty sought by the Township is justified even in the absence of progressive discipline,” he wrote.
His report, dated Feb. 22, 2021, recommend that Officer Erwin be terminated and Sgt. Grey be demoted and suspended for six months.
It still had to go to the township committee, which took the extra step of having an oral argument before them, in late April, Crivelli said and the documents show.
On April 30, the council voted to accept Trelease’s recommendations.
A wrongful termination suit is in the works, Crivelli said, and the only thing preventing its filing is a required 90-day waiting period after notifying Hopewell Township that the officers plan so sue.
Our journalism needs your support. Please subscribe today to NJ.com.
Kevin Shea may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Credit: Source link