As the tension rises in Missouri ahead of a grand jury decision in the shooting death of a teenager by a police officer, a Baltimore sergeant charged with investigating police here went on Twitter to express her opinion.
"After hearing the facts presented #NoIndictment #Ferguson," the tweet read.
As a member of the seven-member Force Investigation Team, Tashawna Gaines investigates police shootings as well as complaints of brutality and excessive force. Police Commissioner Anthony W. Batts created the team in January to rebuild public trust after community leaders alleged that the department had a history of unfair searches, illegal beatings and misconduct.
While Baltimore police and the police union strongly defended Gaines' right to free speech, some Baltimore activists and outside observers said her tweet could stoke the perception that officers are biased and would defend each other's actions, no matter the circumstances.
The shooting Aug. 9 of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., has inflamed opinion around the country. But expressing those opinions has proved to be a thorny issue for law enforcement organizations.
When the Anne Arundel County police union donated $1,000 to a fundraising campaign for Wilson in August, the county's Black Police Officers Association and some residents protested. A St. Louis-area police officer was fired that month after he posted on Facebook that protesters in Ferguson should be "put down like a rabid dog," and an Illinois officer was fired in September after he wrote on the site that Wilson "did society a favor."
The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who has led Ferguson-related demonstrations in Baltimore, called Gaines' tweet "inflammatory" and said it was "in poor taste, very inappropriate and highly insensitive to a very politically charged situation."
Baltimore police union President Gene Ryan noted that Gaines was tweeting from her personal account. He said Gaines can say what she wants when she's off the job as long as she's not discussing Baltimore police matters.
"She's a good worker," Ryan said. "Her ethics should not be in question because she has a personal opinion outside the job."
Police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk also found no fault with Gaines. "We respect the First Amendment rights of citizens in our city, and that includes our employees."
Public safety agencies have been drawing up social media policies in recent years. The Baltimore Police Department policy states that it is "not intended to impose a wholesale restriction on the free exchange of information or opinions." It asks that officers use the same professional standards expected of them in uniform when on social media.
"Do not assume any expectation of privacy when posting information to the Internet or a social media site, regardless of user privacy settings or other access controls," the policy states.
The tweet on Gaines' account has been deleted, and she has since restricted her once-public account to only certain followers. She did not respond to requests for comment.
A grand jury is reviewing evidence in the Brown shooting, which has led to more than three months of demonstrations, violent clashes between police and protesters and a polarizing nationwide discussion on race and police brutality.
In Baltimore, police also have come under scrutiny. The department faces lawsuits from the family of Tyrone West, who died in custody after an altercation with police, and from a man who was punched by an officer at a North Avenue bus stop during an altercation that was caught on video. Officers have been cleared of wrongdoing in the West case; the officer in the bus stop incident has been suspended.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice has launched a wide-ranging review of the department, including allegations of brutality. The review was announced days after The Baltimore Sun reported that the city has paid $5.7 million in court judgments and settlements in 102 civil suits alleging police misconduct since 2011.
Members of the Force Investigation Team interview officers, people alleging abuse and witnesses. They write reports that are read by the Use of Force Review Board, which decides if officers acted within the bounds of state law and police protocols. Police recently decided to post rulings on the department's website to increase transparency. This year, the Force Investigation Team has looked into more than 30 use-of-force incidents.
Because of Gaines' position, Witherspoon said, her tweet makes it appear that she has more information about the Ferguson shooting than average residents. Many protesters believe that law enforcement and prosecutors in Missouri have been limiting public information in the case so that evidence can be arranged in Wilson's favor.
"This just exacerbates that belief that things are being kept from the general public," he said. "I also think the statement could imply some bias on her part as far as her style of policing and in relation to the type of things the Police Department allows."
Bradley Shear, an attorney who worked with the state of Maryland to draft social media law and has testified in the General Assembly, said he sees nothing wrong with Gaines' tweet.
"To me it's just someone exercising her First Amendment," he said.
Other social media experts said police departments need to pay attention to how officers' conduct on Twitter, Facebook and other sites shapes the public's perception of law enforcement.
"When you're a police officer, you're always being scrutinized and you're always being evaluated," said Lauri Stevens, founder of Laws Communications, which puts on an annual Social Media In Law Enforcement conference.
Stevens, who consults for the Justice Department's Community Oriented Policing Services, said Gaines should have expected that people would know she was a police officer even if she was on her personal account.
"It undermines trust in her position as a force investigator," Stevens said. "It just calls into question her judgment."
John Watson, a journalism professor at American University who studies First Amendment issues, said Gaines could make a stronger case that her speech is protected if she were a rank-and-file officer or assigned to another unit besides the Force Investigation Team.
"This is something everyone over the age of 14 should know today," he said. "When you go to social media, you go to the tallest building in your town and shout at the top of your lungs."
Reuters and Tribune Newspapers contributed to this article.