I ran across this story in the Santa Fe New Mexican about a New Mexico State Police Officer who was allegedly posting inappropriate comments in a chat forum dedicated to the Denver Broncos. This was a double whammy to me since I am a Bronco Fan as well as the Sheriff. All kidding aside however this did bring up an interesting dilemma. Many employers would frown on this type of activity however they will not fire someone or discipline them for fear of a free speech type lawsuit. Officers are in the public eye and public servants. Those of us in management tell them this from the day they are hired. We have Standard Operating Procedures which outline acts which bring the department in a bad light as punishable offenses. Therefore chat rooms, blogs, letters to the editor and other forms of free speech need to be balanced against what the public expects from their men and women who wear badges.
What? Those who protect the rights of others must give up some of those rights to be an officer? Yes, and you sign on the dotted line to do so. The case referred to above is a perfect example of why. A state police officer was not only allegedly posting inappropriate comments but he was posting comments in which even though he has a Hispanic sur name he ripped into Hispanics and illegal Mexican nationals, threatened to frame people for drug possession and discussed the effectiveness of stun guns. Maybe he was just venting but the problem lies in that defense attorneys will use these comments against him on each and every case he is involved in. Remember Mark Furman in the O.J. Case? Any time he uses a Tazer in the line of duty it will be alleged it was excessive force and lawsuits will be filed. His effectiveness as an officer is shot and his credibility in court is zero. So when we have officers sign on the dotted line that their personal and professional life must remain unsullied it is really about their credibility in the courts and in the public eye, not about just whether or not we want the department to look good in the public.
On another note I was really miffed when he brought up the Tazer as a fun thing. The Tazer saves lives every day. When I first became sheriff, deputies had a firearm and a baton, the choices were hit them or shoot them if you could not talk them or wrestle them into complying. I brought in Pepper Spray and Tazers. This allowed options when dealing with uncooperative subjects. Tazers are in my opinion one of the greatest additions to law enforcement since bullet resistant vests. They not only save suspects lives every day they save officers lives and prevent untold numbers of injuries to both suspects and officers. They are not a toy and their use should always be serious and necessary. Tazers are still relatively new and I would hate to lose them as a tool because we allowed stupid comments to turn the publics opinion against them.
So, what do you think? Does the officers rights to free speech out weigh the responsibility to the public as a public official?