Firefighters' Facebook posts

The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company has been hit hard by the recent incident, which involved inappropriate posts made on a member's Facebook page after he complained about not receiving a discount at the Bel Air Sonic drive-in restaurant. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF, Patuxent Homestead / June 7, 2012)

Harford County's law enforcement agencies and fire departments generally don't limit their members from accepting discounts like the one offered to police and the military at the Sonic restaurant that got some Bel Air volunteer firefighters disciplined.

Local law enforcement agencies likewise have policies on employees using social media, as do the local fire companies for their volunteer members, though the policy varies from company to company, one official said.

The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company, which recently suspended and reprimanded firefighters after they complained about not getting discounts at Sonic in Bel Air, allows its members to receive special offers, a spokesperson said.

Four Bel Air firefighters were disciplined over comments they made on Facebook, which included suggestions someone should set a Dumpster fire at the Bel Air Sonic restaurant, where one member claimed he was denied a discount available to police and the military, and then not respond to the fire call.

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"There is no BAVFC policy regarding the accepting of discounts at any food or convenience stores," fire company spokesperson Rich Gardiner wrote in an e-mail. "The offers of discounts occur frequently to our members, in uniform and not in uniform. Some accept them, so[me] do not."

The Harford County Sheriff's Office, meanwhile, does not allow its members to accept discounts, nor does the Maryland State Police, and at least two of the three municipal police departments in Harford set some standards regarding acceptance of discounts or gratuities.

At least one national organization says police officers should not accept discounts, gifts, gratuities or any such perks.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police has a clearly stated policy in the Abuse of Law Enforcement Powers or Position section of its Model Policy On Standards of Conduct:

"Officers shall not use their authority or position for financial gain, for obtaining or granting privileges or favors not otherwise available to them or others except as a private citizen, to avoid the consequences of illegal acts for themselves or for others, to barter, solicit, or accept any goods or services (to include, gratuities, gifts, discounts, rewards, loans, or fees) whether for the officer or for another."

It also states: "Officers shall report any unsolicited gifts, gratuities or other items of value that they receive and shall provide a full report of the circumstances of their receipt if directed."

Lt. Fred Budnick, spokesperson for the Aberdeen Police Department, said employees cannot solicit or accept gifts where such an offer could be construed as an effort to influence conduct as a police officer.

They cannot solicit a fee or reward, he said, and cannot provide any extra patrol services or treat a business differently because they offer gratuities, Budnick said.

Spokesperson Jeff Gilpin for the Havre de Grace Police Department said Thursday the department has two policies governing employees accepting gifts or gratuities.

One chapter in the policy, under abuse of position, states that employees are prohibited from using their position for personal or financial benefit or to obtain privileges not otherwise available, he said. 

Another section deals specifically with gifts, Gilpin explained. It is similar to the policy set for Aberdeen Police Department employees. Havre de Grace police employees are not permitted to solicit, seek or accept a gift or gratuity, including food or drink, from any individual or business in cases in which acceptance of the gift could be construed as an effort to influence conduct, he said. 

Although officers can accept discounts and offers from different restaurants, such as Sonic, Gilpin said, they can't expect it or demand it. 

The Bel Air Police Department did not respond to inquiries in time for this article.

The Sonic franchise in Bel Air, the first in Harford County, opened less than two months ago. The Bel Air Volunteer Fire Company has a new substation under construction a short distance away, making the fire company and the drive-in restaurant future neighbors on Route 924.

Eddie Hopkins, the fire company's chief, said he personally visited the owner of Sonic Tuesday night to discuss what had happened. Earlier, Sonic manager Rick Joshi had said he was unaware of the Facebook posts or that any firefighters were unhappy about or had made threats regarding the business.

"I had met with him for half an hour and I was apologizing on behalf of the company and discussed the issue," Hopkins said Thursday. "He appeared to be OK with everything – I don't want to speak for him – and accepted the apology."