Veteran police officer Phillip White may have tweeted himself out of a job.
Buzzfeed reported on Sunday that White was making threatening comments on his Twitter account.
His account settings were soon set to private; the account has now been deleted.
On Monday, the San Jose Police Department placed him on administrative leave. According to the San Jose Mercury News, department policy is that police officer posts in social media should not reflect “conduct unbecoming of an officer.”
However, these latest tweets reflect a pattern of discourse unbecoming to a police officer such as jeering at protestors, including basketball players from the University of California, Berkley. After Buzzfeed’s story, White lost his job as a part-time basketball coach (reflected by his Twitter handle) at Menlo College.
White appears to have also lost support of his union, the San Jose Police Officers’ Association, based upon a statement that did not mention him by name:
Offensive, disrespectful and inappropriate social media comments have no place in the public discourse surrounding the tragic loss of life from recent officer involved incidents. We condemn these comments. What the San Jose Police Officers’ Association will remain focused on is continuing to foster a positive dialogue and positive relationships with the community we are sworn to protect and serve.
There is a petition at Change.org calling for his dismissal from the San Jose Police Department. It currently has more than 12 thousand signatories.
First Amendment and public threats
Threaten me or my family and I will use my God given and law appointed right and duty to kill you. #CopsLivesMatter
~ Phillip White, @Coach_White3431
White’s tweets are not a First Amendment issue per se: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech …” However, in June the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving threats on Facebook (Elonis v. United States):
Courts have used two approaches in dealing with threats. One requires police and prosecutors to show that the person making the threat genuinely intended harm. The other – and one used more often in recent years – is whether “a reasonable person” would be put in genuine fear for their safety or their life… Are such posts – not specifically sent to a person, who may be named – enough to support a “reasonable person” standard? (emphasis added)
Earlier this month, the justices argued over the legal standards that could determine “when a rant goes from being offensive to being threatening.”
By the way if anyone feels they can’t breathe or their lives matter I’ll be at the movies tonight, off duty, carrying my gun.
~ Phillip White, @Coach_White3431
Based on recent events (Mike Brown and Eric Garner), the tweets that White posted Saturday imply a threat to black people. In that context, especially since White is a police officer, could these tweets be considered hate speech, “speech directed at a historically oppressed religious or racial minority with the intent to insult and demean“?
Even if you think the answer to that question is “yes,” the First Amendment “prohibits government from regulating such speech altogether… just because speech offends people, this is never a justification under the First Amendment for punishing it (@NahmodLaw).”
How can anyone “protect and serve” a community that they have denigrated publicly? And why should that community trust the speaker?
The 60s may be a half-century behind us, but many of issues raised then remain with us today. And digital social networks like Twitter can highlight and counter archaic attitudes, even as they provide a forum for them to be expressed.
Update: 2:45 pm Tuesday, December 16
In response to discussion on Facebook, I checked the California law (pdf) on carrying loaded firearms in public. Open carry is illegal. However:
Peace officers and honorably retired peace officers having properly endorsed identification certificates may carry a concealed weapon at any time.
I’ve not seen any news report address this point.
- California is one of a handful of states that prohibit open carry.
- You can’t carry a gun in a California park, at a polling place, or in public (I am interpreting this as state-owned) buildings.
- PoliceOne has an in-depth discussion of the things that a cop should consider when deciding whether to carry while off-duty, including department policy.
- In 2004, President Bush signed the Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA) which might allow off-duty cops to carry a concealed, loaded weapon in any state in the country. However, “[d]espite its intent, LEOSA does not preempt all state laws.”