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Baltimore police union official reassigned after activists assail 'offensive' tweets

Baltimore activists call for firing of police union official after 'offensive tweets'

A high-ranking Baltimore police union official was reassigned from patrol work to building security after a coalition of city activists demanded his firing for what they considered "offensive" tweets posted to his personal Twitter account.

The activists said Lt. Victor Gearhart's tweets "prove embedded racism" within the Police Department, and both department and union officials were quick to disavow his comments.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who has said improving police-community relations is one of his top priorities, took to Twitter himself Monday to say the comments "do not reflect the values" of the department or "our great City." On Tuesday, Davis ordered Gearhart's reassignment, effective Wednesday, according to a document obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

Lawyers for the department were also reviewing the tweets to see if they violated policies governing social media use.

Gearhart, 59, is first vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3 and a 33-year-veteran of the Baltimore police force who works in the Southern District. He often tweets his thoughts on local news stories about policing, and more recently about Freddie Gray's death from injuries sustained while in police custody and the trials of the six officers charged in the case.

In commenting about recent protests in the city under the Twitter handle @SDGhostRider, Gearhart wrote in December, "THUGS always act like THUGS" and "demonstrators act like animals."

He has suggested that both State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby, who brought the charges against the officers, and her husband, City Councilman Nick Mosby, should be "deported" from the country, and that the "Mosby Mob wants Police Scalps not JUSTICE."

In an interview Monday, Gearhart said he is not racist and speaks only for himself on Twitter, which he said is his right under the First Amendment.

"I am not a spokesman for the FOP Lodge 3. I am not a spokesman for the Police Department. I've never presented myself as such. It's my private opinions," he said.

He could not be reached after his reassignment Tuesday. Davis' order does not affect Gearhart's elected position in the union.

Gearhart has suggested Black Lives Matter activists should be arrested, questioned why black-shirted members of the 300 Men March anti-violence group "dress like ISIS," and called a shooting at a candlelight vigil for another shooting victim "a form of Baltimore Karma."

On Friday, Makayla Gilliam-Price, a 17-year-old activist who has taken a leadership role in several recent protests, including an overnight sit-in at City Hall, called out Gearhart in a blog post for those and other tweets. She also called for more systemic change, including reforms to the Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights that would better allow citizens to hold police accountable and play a role in officers' administrative reviews.

"While the targeting of individuals has proven to be one of the more unproductive methods of fighting for justice, exposing the problematic actions of people in power can often shed light on not who, but what should be our true target: the systems that create and uphold the individual instances of oppression that we struggle against daily," Gilliam-Price wrote on the website of Assata's Syllabus, a community awareness group.

Other grass-roots activists rallied behind her call for Gearhart's firing, including Adam Jackson, CEO of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle; the group Baltimore Bloc; Morgan State University assistant professor Lawrence Brown; writer Tariq Touré and retired Baltimore police sergeant Michael A. Wood Jr.

Police departments, including Baltimore's, have struggled with how best to handle employees' social media postings — balancing individuals' First Amendment rights with the departments' desire to avoid controversy and prevent members from offending those they are meant to serve.

In November, the Baltimore Police Department instituted a five-page social media policy, which prohibits members from posting on their personal social media pages "any discriminatory, gratuitously violent or similarly inappropriate written content, audio files, photographs, or other depictions that are contrary to the mission and effectiveness of the BPD."

Such content, the policy states, would include any "racist, sexist or other discriminatory content that expresses bias against any race, religion, or other protected class of individuals," as well as any content "that might lead a reasonable member of the public to question whether the member is committed to constitutional, non-discriminatory policing."

Some legal experts questioned the power of such social media policies to impinge on officers' constitutional rights.

Bradley Shear, a Bethesda attorney who has advised Maryland legislators on social media policy, said departments are particularly limited in their ability to restrict speech related to matters of public concern or political issues.

"If he was fired for these tweets, I think he may have a strong case to defend himself and say, 'Hey, look, my speech was constitutionally protected,'" Shear said. "We have a lot of officials who say a lot of unpopular and offensive things. We have some people running for president saying some unpopular and offensive things. But we live in a country where you have a right to a certain extent to voice your opinion without fear of being retaliated against."

The criticism of Gearhart's comments comes as the Police Department is trying to repair its frayed relationship with the community, particularly after the unrest following Gray's death in April.

Davis has sought to maintain a dialogue with activists and protesters — though some, including Gilliam-Price, have criticized his approach and called for his removal as well.

Davis has struck a starkly different tone than Gearhart in his comments about protests related to the officers' trials in the Gray case. Davis has stressed protesters' right to assemble, and said the department will treat a "protest like a protest" and not as an opening for arrests.

The FOP tweeted its own message about Gearhart, writing, "Be advised: the statements made by @SDGhostRider do not represent or reflect the opinion or beliefs of our organization."

Shear said disavowing the comments may be the "right tack" for police and union officials to take, and the extent of their response unless they want to engage in a legal battle with Gearhart.

Gearhart said he was "slandered" by what Gilliam-Price wrote. He said he has fought for equal justice for everyone his entire life, and won't be pushed into silence. "I'm pretty immune to pressure," he said.

Gearhart also suggested activists are simply looking for any excuse to take down top-ranking officials in the Police Department.

"The trouble is, right now, they want cop scalps. That's all they want. And it's not going to happen. We have rights under the First Amendment," he said.

Gearhart said he won a legal challenge years ago in a case in which police officials seized his personal computer after alleging there was "distasteful" material on it — and that he will defend his rights again.

As a lieutenant, Gearhart made about $125,250 in 2015, according to city data.

The activists said the claims by the FOP and the department that Gearhart does not speak for them were excuses. Gearhart's reassignment, Gilliam-Price said, "is definitely much closer to our goal of having him taken out of his position all together," and a sign that Davis "is taking our demands a little bit more seriously" than she previously thought.

Still, she said Gearhart's reassignment was largely "symbolic," and doesn't change the need within the Police Department to "reform the policies that allow people like him to be in power."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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