Firefighters face consequences following troubling social media posts about protests
Disparaging posts send local officials scrambling to rebuild trust during already tense times
Watch: Fire Chief Marc Bashoor explains what firefighters must understand about their First Amendment rights and the consequences of social media posts.
“Oh please come lay on the road in front of my driveway. You will quickly become a greasy spot in the highway.”
A photo of a Black baby in a mother's womb with a noose around its neck.
Calls to turn hoses on protesters.
These are just some of the recent social media posts that have resulted in firefighters facing investigations and terminations.
Tensions are high across the country, as thousands have taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest police violence following the death of George Floyd, a Black man who died in police custody in May. Many demonstrations have ultimately devolved into riots – and firefighters find themselves responding to increased call volumes for fires and, in some cases, being the target of attacks themselves.
Amid heightened stress, several firefighters have spilled their frustrations onto social media – and there have been consequences.
Steven Melton, a firefighter in Forrest City, has been fired after posting on social media a picture of a Black baby in his mother’s womb with a noose around his neck. Below the baby is the phrase, “I can’t breathe!”
Councilwoman Louise Fields saw the post and reached out to the mayor, who terminated Melton, according to WREG Memphis.
“I was appalled that somebody in our community that worked for our community would do something like that,” Councilwoman Dena Poteat said.
Two Mobile firefighters have been terminated and one resigned following alleged violations of the city’s social media policy related to comments the firefighters posted related to recent protests and riots.
As NBC15 reported, in one post about protesters, someone commented, “Just turn the water hose on them and spray them away,” to which, according to a source, one of the terminated firefighters replied, "I don't go back till Monday! Lol"
The local firefighters union is appealing the terminations.
Jack Peters, a fire lieutenant who was president of Leonia Fire Company No. 1., has stepped down from his position as lieutenant after posting a Facebook comment under a picture of a young female protester holding a sign that says “F*** the Police.” Peters was one of hundreds to post comments, some of which were deemed racially and sexually insulting, reported the Daily Voice.
Peters apologized for his comment: “The comment that I made in response to a Facebook post from another Leonia resident was clearly not acceptable; I was angered by the sign shown in the picture that was part of the post, but that in no way excuses the comment that I made about the person who was holding the sign. I apologize both to the individual who was holding the sign, as well as all who had to read my comment. Although I will state clearly here that my comment doesn't represent my beliefs, I realize that just saying this won't make anyone believe that I'm being sincere. The only way to ensure this is, both through word and action, to conduct myself in a way that shows I am living up to my belief that there is no place for either racism or chauvinism in our community or in general. As a parent, I am, in hindsight, even more aware of just how inappropriate my comment was; again, I offer my heartfelt apology to the individual who was holding the sign, and to all who had to read my inappropriate comment.”
Peters remains a Leonia firefighter. The department and Fire Company No. 1 are holding meetings to determine whether further action is necessary.
Dallas Fire-Rescue Battalion Chief Allan Springer is under investigation after making racist comments on Facebook, according to WFAA-TV (Channel 8). Springer commented on a post about Black Lives Matter protests that “we need to find out who’s behind this and find a good tree to use!”
Department spokesman Jason Evans said in a statement that the department is “aware of the recent social media posts possibly by one of its members” and that “the department’s Internal Affairs Division is conducting an investigation into the matter to aid the department in determining the next course of action.”
Also in Texas, a San Antonio Fire Department firefighter, who had not been identified, has been terminated for posting racist and threatening comments and images related to the recent civil unrest on Facebook.
"The City of San Antonio and the SAFD consider these posts absolutely unacceptable and reprehensible," city officials said the news release. "This type of conduct will not be tolerated, and employees that choose to engage in such behavior will be dealt with swiftly and severely. The City of San Antonio and the SAFD remain committed to protecting the residents and visitors of our diverse, inclusive and multicultural community."
Officials did not detail the context of the posts.
In Texarkana, an online petition is demanding the reinstatement Engineer Clay Phillips, who is currently suspended without pay because of a post on his personal Facebook page. The change.org petition, which lists George Washington as the organizer, seeks $20,000 in support of Phillips, reported Texarkana Gazette.
Phillips was put on leave after posting to his Facebook page: "Cut off their government assistance and see how long they keep this nonsense up. These punk ass thugs have no stake in America. They don't contribute anything to society so what does it matter if the (sic) burn our country to the ground? All they have ever know (sic) is take take take. Who's entitled???? Damn sure isn't the people that get up and work everyday and never get any assistance from the government. Arrest the looters and arsonist (sic) !!!! If you are out in the streets after curfew arrest all of them with whatever force is necessary and tag them never to get government assistance again!"
Commenters on the petition asserted that Phillips' post was not racist.
Derby Fire Department Chief Robert Laskowski has been placed on administrative leave after posting a comment on Facebook that said, “They need a few Blackhawks with snipers to solve the problem,” in reference to clashes between police and the public in New York City, reported Valley Independent Sentinel.
Laskowski said was not representing the city or the fire department in the comment: “It was just an off-the-cuff comment I made when it sounded like the city was falling apart and the police were losing control. It sounded like police were on their own, and my comment was just that they needed military help to calm things down. I didn’t say go shoot people. I didn’t say anything racist. It sounded like complete chaos. They needed help. That’s what I was saying.”
The chief will face a disciplinary hearing that will be handled by Derby Fire Commissioner Gary Parker. Mayor Rich Dziekan has added his belief that the chief “does not deserve to serve in a public position.”
Greer Fire Department Battalion Chief Jody Norris is on leave during an investigation into a social media post that angered some community members.
Although a department spokesperson declined to detail the nature of the post, Greenville News reported: “A screenshot of Norris' alleged post shows a meme from the ‘I will vote GOP’ Facebook page that contrasts a picture of people moving hay bales with the words ‘If they did this during the day’ and a picture of people vandalizing the inside of a retail store with the words ‘They wouldn't do this at night.” The post attributed to Norris included the words ‘or any real labor for that matter.’”
Greer's social media policy reportedly states that employees who utilize social networking sites in their off-duty time shall maintain an appropriate level of professionalism and appropriate conduct "so as not to broadcast in a manner which is detrimental to the mission and the function of the City of Greer."
Lyons Fire Protection District Chief J.J. Hoffman has resigned following a social media post about racial justice protesters.
The Times-Call reported that Hoffman’s resignation followed an investigation by the NAACP into comments on a personal Facebook page where the chief was tagged on a comment that read, “I think the denver police should have denver fire dept G it 2 and 1/2 inch line and their monitor and wash all this human trash into the gutter,” to which Hoffman replied, “ha ha if I was down there I definitely would open up our high pressure bumper turret and have some fun.”
Colo. State Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont said he received more than a dozen emails about the chief’s post. “Fire hoses used against Americans demanding racial injustice and change can only harken us back to one tragic event in our history: the Birmingham campaign of 1963,” Singer wrote in the complaint he filed with the NAACP Colorado Montana Wyoming State Conference.
Hoffman, who served as chief for 11 years, later apologized on Facebook: “For those who know me, I’m a very caring person, believe me or not that’s fine. I have dedicated over 31 years of my life in helping others and truly do care about human life. There are some on this thread that will not believe me when I say that, again all I can say is sorry if I offended you. I am not trying to belittle history.”
South Lane Fire Chief John Wooten is on non-disciplinary leave as the South Lane County Fire and Rescue Board of Directors investigates the alleged posting of offensive messages on the chief’s personal Facebook account. Wooten was accused of posting that rioters should be shot; however, as was reported on June 3, the fire department initially reported that the fire chief’s account was hacked. It has since been revealed that inflammatory posts stretch back at least two months, according to screenshots obtained by local media KEZI.
Gilmer County Volunteer Fire Department Chief Martin Hess has been removed from the West Virginia State Fire Commission after sharing social media posts the governor deemed inappropriate and inflammatory. A post shared with 5 News allegedly shows Hess wearing a T-shirt that says “All Lives Splatter” and showing a car running over people.
Fire Chief Bob Dunovsky, the chief of the Lincoln (Illinois) Fire Department, issued a written apology for sharing a Facebook post that said Trump supporters would blow the heads off of looters. The chief said the decision to share the post "was made in haste and without much thought" and that he didn't have any ill intent when he did it: "Today in the world of social media, what one may find cute, amusing, or even funny can conversely be found offensive or hurtful by others," Dunovsky wrote in his apology. "I'm sorry and I apologize for the nature of said posts."
Two Sauk Rapids volunteer firefighters have been dismissed from the department after posting "troubling comments" on social media about the protests following George Floyd's death, according to a city-issued news release on Monday.
"The comments in no way reflect the position of the City of Sauk Rapids, its fire department, city staff or the City Council and are contrary to the core values and mission of the City and the Sauk Rapids Fire Department," read the release, signed by Mayor Kurt Hunstiger, City Administrator Ross Olson, Fire Chief Jason Fleming and Police Chief Perry Beise. “Threats of violence and racism are unacceptable and will not be tolerated by the City of Sauk Rapids," according to the release.”
Moultrie Fire Chief Jeffrey Thibodeau is on administrative leave following a Facebook post he shared that showed a picture of George Floyd with text detailing his past criminal history and the line “Too bad the pregnant woman didn’t have a gun,” reported WALB News10.
The post was taken down not long after, and replaced with his apology; however, some members of the community are now calling for the chief to be fired.
Also in Georgia, Gainesville officials are investigating a city firefighter making an “inappropriate, distasteful and baseless remark regarding the citizenship status of some demonstrators” on social media during overnight protests, City Manager Bryan Lackey said in a Facebook post on Sunday.
“We want the public to know the comments of this one individual do not, in any way, shape or form, reflect the views or position of the Gainesville Fire Department, nor the city of Gainesville government,” Lackey said. “The city prides itself on being a melting pot, and has zero tolerance for comments such as these.”
An FDNY firefighter has been suspended after he shared a photo of a naked black man sitting on George Floyd’s head with fellow firefighters, FDNY officials said.
Additionally, Hillcrest Fire Chief Rick Larson has apologized for posting a Facebook message that read, "Is it wrong to follow rioters home and burn down their property? Asking for a friend." The apology, which was posted on the 12 News Facebook page, said he would never burn down a person's home, and that he supports the peaceful protests surrounding Floyd's death.
Michael Savage, president of the Hillcrest Fire Company Board, said the board is investigating Larson's Facebook post.
Also in New York, Washington Heights Fire Department Chief Chuck Healy is under scrutiny for allegedly making racist remarks he on Facebook. News 12 reports that outraged viewers shared screen shots of the chief’s posts referring to protesters as “pavement apes.”
Town Supervisor Frank DenDanto condemned the remarks and said he will demand disciplinary action be taken: "He does not represent the town of Wallkill,” DenDanto said. “He has no impact on the town. The town's position and policies are that justice and equality are the most important items.”
On Long Island, Gaetano Leone, an employee in the Department of Public Works and a Hempstead Village firefighter was suspended in late-June after officials say he posted to Facebook a racially insensitive video that shows a hose squad violently blasting protesters to the ground with water, with the caption, “This is how we should deal with rioters."
Long Island’s Newsday reported that Barbara Powell of the NAACP's Hempstead Branch condemned it as insensitive and offensive. Powell wrote a letter to Hempstead Village Mayor Don Ryan about the posting, and the mayor agreed that it was insensitive.
Leone has been suspended without pay until July 13, and he has to take a sensitivity training class.
Steven Jennings, a volunteer fire chief for the Triangle Volunteer Fire Department in Pamlico County, is stepping down from his position and will take a leave of absence after comments he made on social media, according to WCTI.
In a letter to the Pamlico County Fire Marshal's Office, Jennings apologized for a comment made on a Facebook live video about people performing a "die-in" in front of New Bern City Hall this weekend, noting that his “words have reflected poorly on myself, my department, and the fire service in general." He also acknowledged that rather than help the unrest in communities across North Carolina, his comment worsened the situation.
In another incident in North Carolina, Blaine Shellhorn, a volunteer with the Ellis Cross Country Fire Department, has been dismissed from the department following racist comments on Snapchat.
According to the Salisbury Post, Shellhorn replied to a message from a former fellow student regarding peaceful protests that took place Sunday. In his response, Shellhorn apparently used a racial slur directed at the black female recipient. He later issued an apology on Facebook.
Additionally, in a since-deleted post on the Ellis Cross Country Fire Department Facebook page, Captain J.D. Bush wrote an apology explaining Shellhorn’s behavior. The message also came under criticism and was later removed by Bush, who has since chosen to resign from the department.
Fire Chief Chris Kepley said the views expressed by Shellhorn do not represent the views of the fire department. Kepley also said she believes Bush’s intentions were good in trying to defend his friend, but his comments were not cleared with the chief or other fire department officers.
A Jackson firefighter is under investigation for possible hate speech related to a Facebook comment about protests, according to WAPT.
"We are aware of the insensitive social media posts of one of our firefighters," Fire Chief Willie G. Owens said in a statement. "It is always our hope that our firefighters would conduct themselves at a high standard on and off duty. At this time, we are conducting an active internal affairs investigation into this matter."
Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba said such comments undermine public trust: “In these times, when so many of us are feeling a sense of grief, vulnerability, and even rage around the senseless violence being perpetrated by police, it is even more important -- in fact it is critical -- that our city employees, especially those sworn to protect our residents from harm-- conduct themselves in a manner that earns the public’s trust. These postings not only appear to be in violation of city social media policy, they also serve to undermine public trust.”
Also in Mississippi, Vicksburg Mayor George Flaggs says he is reviewing social media posts made by Fire Chief Craig Dancyzk that said about the protests and rioting around the country, “I got 40 round magazines and (2) AR’s” and subsequently, “Protect your families from criminals,” reported Vicksburg Daily News. Additionally, Vicksburg Assistant Chief Trey Martin reportedly “liked” the comment thread.
Mayor Flaggs said there have been two incidents regarding Facebook posts by city employees that were deemed offensive and distasteful, and they are under review: “As Mayor I’m looking to see whether or not there are any first amendment violations and whether they violated any polices of the City of Vicksburg. I’m going to review the file and make a recommendation at the next Mayor and Board of Alderman meeting.”
Learning the lessons
Most firefighters have heard the term “social media-assisted career suicide,” referring to just such post that can derail – or end – a fire service career.
As Deputy Chief Billy Goldfeder wrote in his Fired Up! column “Perform a social media size-up before every post,” as a general rule, it is best to stay off social media in any way that can connect you to your role as a firefighter: “We’ve probably all heard, ‘I wish I hadn't posted that crap!’ Or maybe it’s a case of delete, delete, delete, but too late, someone already took a screenshot of it. Damn!”
Goldfeder added that at the end of the day, you can post whatever you want, “but then understand that you own the consequences.”