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Court Upholds Reinstatement of Police Officer Fired Over Social Media Posts

In City of Peoria v. Peoria Police Benevolent Association, et al., the City of Peoria challenged an arbitrator’s decision that ordered the reinstatement of a police officer who was fired for making racially insensitive posts on Facebook, including posting and photo of himself wearing a t-shirt with the phrase “Baby Daddy Removal Team.” The Facebook posts came to the City’s attention when the Assistant Police Chief received a complaint from a local pastor who found the posts “derogatory and concerning.” The pastor further explained that individuals in the African American community were upset by the officer’s posts.

After receiving the complaint, the City conducted an investigation and found that the officer’s Facebook posts were made on his home computer and outside of working hours. The officer made the posts as part of an exchange with a private citizen concerning a newspaper article reporting the closure of supermarkets on the south end of Peoria. In the exchange, the officer blamed the store closures on theft, and he described the residents of the area as “entitled thieves,” “fatherless,” using drugs, and committing crimes such as thefts and murder. During the investigation, the City also found an older Facebook post by the officer in which he described Trayvon Martin as a “thug.”

The City decided to terminate the officer for the Facebook posts. The police union filed a grievance the next day, arguing that the City did not have “just cause” for the termination, and the grievance proceeded to arbitration. The arbitrator found that the officer’s comments and t-shirt were not overtly racist, even though they were insensitive and inappropriate. The arbitrator concluded that the City did not have “just cause” to terminate the officer and ordered the officer to be reinstated with lesser discipline.

The City then filed a complaint in circuit court seeking to vacate the arbitrator’s award on two grounds: (1) that the arbitrator exceeded his authority; and (2) that the arbitrator’s award violated public policy. The circuit court affirmed the arbitrator’s award, and the City appealed.

On appeal, the appellate court concluded that the grievance was properly submitted to arbitration under the parties’ collective bargaining agreement and that the arbitrator acted within the scope of his authority when he weighed the evidence, reviewed and determined the applicability of the City’s policies, and concluded that the City did not meet its burden of establishing “just cause” for the officer’s dismissal.

The court also disagreed that the arbitrator’s award violated public policy. The City contended that it is against public policy for police departments to employ racist police officers. The court, however, rejected this argument because the City was unable to cite to any laws, rules, or regulations in this Illinois supporting the existence of such a public policy. The court also noted that the arbitrator concluded that the Facebook posts were not overtly racist, and therefore, even if there was a public policy against the employment of racist police officers, the officer’s reinstatement would not violate the public policy.

To discuss the implications of this case or your employees’ use of social media, contact Jeff Goelitz, Chris Hoffmann, or Pam Simaga, or any other attorney in our Labor/Personnel practice group.

Source: City of Peoria v. Peoria Police Benevolent Association, et al., 2022 IL App (3d) 210567-U