Four officers of the Ft Lauderdale Police Department were investigated for exchanging racially charged text messages and at least one video. The messages were brought to the attention of the Department by the former fiancée of one of the officers. The former fiancée had access to the messages during the relationship and preserved copies them. Several of the messages contained disparaging racial references, including repeated use of the "N" word. The messages also contained disparaging references to other officers and the efficiency of the Department. Following the investigation one of the officers (the creator of the video) resigned and the remaining three were dismissed. One did not challenge the dismissal. Two pursued their discipline separately before Arbitrators Carey M. Fisher and James Reynolds. Both arbitrators denied the grievances and upheld the terminations.
Both arbitrators rejected the officers claims that the messages had been improperly obtained or were protected by the First Amendment. On the merits, both found the evidence supported the Department's charge that each officer had engaged in "conduct unbecoming" and conduct "prejudicial to the good order of the Department."
Concerning the use of the "N" word, Arbitrator Fischer observed:
[Grievant] argues that it is merely that – a word, the meaning and import of which is dependent on the context and thought process of both the speaker and the listener, or in this case, the author and recipient. He denied any intent to denigrate African Americans. He denied any intent to express hateful, racist expressions. Yet, the word itself, and the context in which it was used, along with other exchanges amongst the officers, leads to the inescapable conclusion that its use was distasteful, unprofessional and derogatory. Yes, just a word, but one that conjures up images for which a proper context does not exist when used today by police officers (white or black) about residents of Fort Lauderdale.
Arbitrator Fisher noted that the use of the word in this case this was not "a slip of the tongue in a fit of pique" or one time indiscretion, but rather the denigration of a group "as part of one's personal entertainment.”
Concluding that the conduct involved damaged the Department’s relationship with the community Arbitrator Fischer found the conduct involved directly impacted the Department’s ability to perform its duties. Arbitrator Fischer observed:
The tasks facing police departments are considerable as populations have grown more culturally, racially, ethnically and religiously diverse. It is well known throughout this country that tension and conflict exists between police and some populations of the communities they serve. Unavoidably, the role police have in enforcing the law and maintaining order places officers in key positions to deal with all kinds of conflicts. Additionally, the actions of officers and the perceptions of the public result in heightened media, political and public attention. Bad news travels fast. Perceptions become reality. Enough gossip turns into fact.
Accordingly he found that the City had established cause for the officer’s dismissal.
In his award, Arbitrator Reynolds reiterated that police officers are held to a higher standard of conduct than other professionals:
... the primary duty of police officers is that of law enforcement. As such they are often the first to be involved in actions that could result in depriving citizens of their freedom. That is a formidable responsibility. In order to effectively discharge their responsibilities police officers must have the respect of the community they serve. That requires that they adhere to high standards of conduct in both their private and professional lives.
Like Arbitrator Fischer, he rejected the officer’s assertion that his intent was not to be racist or disparaging, finding that the comments were clearly racist “and his intentions do not provide any other meaning."
Even accepting as believable the officer’s testimony that he was not a racist, Arbitrator Reynolds found:
His comments were racially offensive, and some were demeaning to members of the Department. His conduct was clearly unbecoming that of a police officer and the record shows that it was prejudicial to the good order of the Department. It is not likely that he would repeat his misconduct, but a cloud over him would persist that would hamper his effectiveness as a police officer in the City of Fort Lauderdale.
Finding that there was a convincing showing that the officer’s conduct had a “disturbing effect “ on the community’s trust in the Department, Arbitrator Reynolds concluded:
What fundamentally matters here is the issue of [grievant’s] conduct as reasonably viewed by the Department and ultimately the community. Through that perspective the record supports a finding the [grievant’s] termination was for cause.
Arbitrator Fischer's award can be found here. Arbitrator Reynolds' award here.