Although racist text messages at least two Montgomery County Sheriff’s deputies allegedly exchanged were private, their jobs could be in jeopardy because the sheriff was made aware of the texts, an attorney said Wednesday.
“It is possible that somebody could lose their job because of the messages, but I think a lot of it depends on the position that they hold,” said employment law attorney Jason Matthews. “It also depends on whether they’re a private sector or public sector employee, whether they have certain protections, such as a collective bargaining agreement or personnel policies that would protect them from being terminated.”
Sheriff Phil Plummer on Monday suspended Capt. Thomas Flanders and Detective Michael Sollenberger for allegedly sending the text messages on their personal cell phones containing racially insensitive jokes — some of which mentioned two black deputies. Three other deputies are involved, but they have not been suspended pending the outcome of an internal investigation, the sheriff said Tuesday.
The messages may have violated multiple sections of the department’s code of conduct, according to a review of the document. It includes rules that say employees shouldn’t express any prejudice concerning race or use language or engage in conduct that is unbecoming or derogatory.
The code of ethics section includes language that states: “I WILL keep my private life unsoiled as an example to all” and “I WILL never act officiously or permit personal feelings, prejudices, animosities, or friendship to influence my decisions.”
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Plummer has said that if the internal investigation reveals the deputies are guilty, “they will be punished to the fullest extent that I am allowed to.”
Dayton Unit NAACP President Derrick L. Foward has called for their immediate termination if the deputies are responsible for the messages. He also commended Plummer for the way he’s handled the situation.
“The way that he dealt with it, very swiftly, really speaks to his integrity about wanting to continue having good police (and community) relations,” Foward said.
His organization has investigated the texts dated between 2011 and 2013 since receiving them in August from an anonymous source, he said.
A local law enforcement expert said Wednesday that such racist comments, if true, cut away at the fraternal nature of police forces.
“It can definitely disrupt the environment that you’re trying to create, one of support and a good working relationship,” Patrick Oliver, a professor at Cedarville University and a former police chief, said in general terms about intra-department allegations.
“An officer who commits an act of racial bias, that has the potential of not only impacting the organization’s relationship with that segment of community, and all members of the community,” Oliver said. “But also has the potential of impacting that officer’s relationship with other officers in the department.”
Plummer’s office currently has 192 white sworn officers and nine black sworn officers (about 4.5 percent) while Montgomery County is 74.4 percent white and 21 percent black, according to 2013 U.S. Census estimates.
Foward said block parties and other initiatives in black neighborhoods have strengthened relationships between the county’s African-American community and the sheriff’s office. During a press conference at which he announced the deputies’ suspension Tuesday, Plummer said racism won’t be tolerated and that the officers’ actions have “tarnished” the office.
“I think he spoke very eloquently that it set his department back,” said Foward. “All of the good efforts that he has shown over the years I’ve been (NAACP Dayton Unit) President, since 2007, have been commendable. But unfortunately, sometimes you may have, as they say, a bad apple in every bunch.”
Though the alleged texts were sent on personal cell phones — sheriff’s office policy states that all law enforcement business is to be done on county-issued phones — Plummer said some were sent while the deputies were on duty.
“Then it becomes an action conducted by a person during employment,” Oliver said. “You’re a peace officer 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”
Flanders and Sollenberg, both 15-year veterans, worked together in internal affairs during the time period when the alleged texts were sent. A review of their personnel files showed neither has had disciplinary action taken against them in the past.
“If you have been working with people and they show you one face over a number of years and then you come to find out that they’re totally different and they’re putting up a facade and they’re harboring hatred, I think anybody would be disappointed,” Foward said.
Flanders is president of the Centerville Elks Youth Football Association Inc., according to the nonprofit organization’s website. A representative of that group wrote in an email: “Tommy has an outstanding record as a board member within the organization and has upheld many different roles over the last several years.”
Oliver said he thinks Plummer will mete out discipline that’s appropriate if it’s determined that the employees’ actions rise to conduct unbecoming of an officer.
“What I know of Sheriff Phil Plummer (is) that he’s a guy that is very concerned about not only diversity of the department, but the perception that the community has of the sheriff’s office,” Oliver said. “”Does one’s words or actions reflect negatively upon the agency that they’re employed with in this government, public-servant position?
“If this is true, it certainly impacts one’s credibility, not only with the public, but also with the court system. Because it shows a bias and so if that officer is later testifying in court, they’re wanting to know if the actions of the officer was based on the conduct of the individual or was it based on who they were, in other words, the bias they may have.”
Gerald Bemis, union committee member of the local FOP lodge representing the sheriff’s office, said the FOP is aware of the investigation and has touched base with the sheriff. However, he said they did not have a statement at this point in time.
Sheriff’s Office Maj. Daryl Wilson, who is black, said Tuesday that the timing of the texts is bad.
“We realize that, which is why we jumped on this with both feet,” he said. “Hold everyone accountable to ensure the community that we got it and we’re going to make sure that we got things in place to continue to catch it and we can move forward in a positive way in this community, because we need that.”