UPDATE @ 9:47 p.m.: Two longtime Montgomery County sheriff’s deputies have been fired and three others suspended for allegedly sending dozens of racially insensitive text messages that disparaged and ridiculed black co-workers, President Obama and others, Sheriff Phil Plummer announced Friday.
The deputies and their punishments, according to the sheriff:
- Capt. Tom Flanders, terminated
- Detective Mike Sollenberger, terminated
- Deputy Joseph Connelly, 30-day suspension
- Deputy Jamie Horton, 10-day suspension
- Sgt. Brian Lewis, 3-day suspension
A 94-page sheriff’s office internal investigation spelled out how the text messages came to light through an anonymous NAACP complaint that stemmed from the now ex-wife of one of the fired deputies. The texts were exchanged between November 2011 and January 2013.
“We put a lot of time and effort into this,” said Plummer, who also announced corrective steps that includes all 450 of his employees receiving cultural diversity training. “We feel the discipline is appropriate.”
Detective Mike Sollenberger, who worked for four of his 19½ years with the sheriff’s office in internal affairs, and Capt. Tom Flanders — a 17½-year veteran — were terminated for insubordination and ethical conduct. Flanders also broke a computer system rule for erasing his work-issued iPhone and iPod before turning them in.
Deputy Joseph Connelly was suspended for 30 days; Deputy Jamie Horton for 10 days; and Sgt. Brian Lewis for three days — all for ethical conduct violations. Plummer said those three employees admitted their mistakes and were apologetic.
“The other two employees did not admit their mistakes,” he said. “They still denied being involved in this. And this case is a preponderance of evidence. It’s not a court of law, so we just have to make a reasonable person believe that this occurred.”
The sheriff’s decision to terminate is disappointing and unjustified, because the investigation into the texts was inadequate, said attorney Doug Brannon, who represents Flanders. He said Flanders and Sollenberger did not exchange racist text messages, but were framed.
Plummer said he would expand the office’s police/community relations committee to a county-wide organization with 20 police agencies and 20 community members. He noted that the texts targeted police administration and private citizens, and showed attitudes that run counter to the department’s code of ethics.
“My greatest disappointment is just the whole picture of how they talked about people,” Plummer said. “Some of the deep stuff they mentioned that no one can tolerate.”
The text messages came to light in August after the Dayton Unit NAACP received 105 pages of them from an anonymous person and the office conducted a four-month investigation into the allegations, said Derrick Foward, the organization’s president. The NAACP wanted to be sure the messages were authentic and after their legitimacy was established, the findings of the investigation were turned over to the sheriff in late November, he said.
Plummer’s termination of Sollenberger and Flanders and his discipline of the three other employees show a praiseworthy resolve to do what is right, Foward said. He commended the sheriff for taking swift and decisive action against employees who shared offensive and “disturbing” messages.
“Sheriff Phil Plummer has set a precedence the nation should follow, about how you can go against the grain of your fraternity in the name of justice,” Foward said at a news conference. “He exercised leadership today, and we applaud him for his courage.”
The Dayton Unit NAACP in the past directed people to file complaints about potential police misconduct with the internal investigations division of the sheriff’s office, and it is alarming Flanders and Sollenberger worked for those divisions and likely fielded complaints, Foward said.
“Now we know that many of the complaints (our office) sent down there may have fell on deaf ears, because the persons over that department harbored racism inside of their hearts,” he said.
Racism in any work setting is harmful, because it often means that deserving people are not promoted or are mistreated, Foward said. But racism is alarming when it is among members of law enforcement because their job is to protect and serve and uphold justice, and they have the power to enforce laws, he said.
Racially related texts
According to the investigation, Sollenberger’s alleged text conversations occurred among himself and the other four affected employees. All the exchanges were between two people, with Sollenberger being the constant participant.
Sollenberger allegedly wrote: “Watching history channel on MLK. Showing old films of restaurants in the south. It would have been fun to beat up coloreds cause they came into your restaurant.”
In another text string, Flanders allegedly wrote, “What do apples and black people have in common? They both hang from trees.”
Foward, quoted in the report, said: “So when we talk about black people hanging from trees … that hits home for a lot of us, especially our seniors, who lived through those turbulent times.”
Sollenberger, who apparently worked a security detail in Columbus when President Obama was campaigning for re-election, allegedly called him a “half-breed” and texted “Just because a (expletive) scammed the election and is pres. It does not give the G-damn right to shop at DLM.”
Maj. Daryl Wilson, who is black and supervises some of the deputies accused of sending the messages, said he didn’t take the texts personally but did take affront as an administrator of an organization.
“I tried to base my opinion on facts; I have to,” Wilson said. “If not, then I’m going on my emotions or by me being a man of color. And you can’t do that.”
According to the report, Sollenberger’s wife, Jennifer, said her child was hunting through her things looking for an old phone that belonged to her husband. When the phone was located, a friend looked into it to see if there may be things Sollenberger’s wife didn’t want to see.
The contents allegedly contained pictures of Sollenberger and his girlfriend, plus many texts that the friend saw as racially insensitive. The friend then downloaded the texts onto her computer.
“We are in the, the nastiest custody battle that, you know, anybody could ever imagine,” the report quotes Sollenberger as saying.
Attorney Brannon said Jennifer Sollenberger or a friend seemingly used a computer program to alter text messages sent between Sollenberger, Flanders and others to include racist language.
Plummer disputed that assertion, saying they received the phone last week: “We had the phone looked at by an expert, who says these cannot be recreated; they cannot be forged.”
Possible legal issues ahead
Plummer said Sollenberger and Flanders showed no remorse and denied being involved. The sheriff said he believes the three employees who admitted to some of the conversations, and he does not think racism flows through the department.
“This was an isolated event,” Plummer said. “We have 450 people. I feel we handled this. This does not reflect the entire organization.”
Flanders plans to appeal his termination, his attorney said. Flanders may be eligible for union representation because he was a sergeant when the messages were allegedly sent. Otherwise, he will file a civil lawsuit in Common Pleas court alleging wrongful termination, Brannon said.
Gerald Bemis, president of the union representing Sollenberger, said he could not comment on the matter at this time.
Flanders had a “spotless” 20-year career with the sheriff’s office and is extremely upset by the allegations against him, Brannon said.
Plummer called a news conference when he began his investigation into the texts, and his public remarks and the amount of publicity the garnered seems to have impacted the investigation, Brannon said.
“We feel he painted himself into a corner and reached a predetermined conclusion on the outcome of this investigation,” Brannon said.