In December 13, 2022, HPOU General Counsel Aaron Suder
represented a Central Patrol Sergeant in his arbitration appeal of a 3-Day
Suspension, which was issued on May 23, 2022, by Chief Troy Finner. The Sergeant was alleged to have violated
General Order 200-41, Department Presence on Social Media and the
Internet. The City was represented at
the arbitration by HPD attorneys Rhonda Reece and Kyle McCauley. The case was heard by Independent Hearing
Examiner Sherry Wetsch.
In December of 2021, the Sergeant made a post to his
personal Twitter account that was meant to be a light-hearted joke about being
woken up by the HPD (“Fox”) helicopter performing a routine training flight
near his residence. The post contained a
screen shot that depicted the helicopter’s flight path, near the Sergeant’s
residence, along with a caption that humorously suggested that the helicopter
might consider flying at a higher altitude.
The Sergeant had obtained the screen shot from a publicly available
internet website (one of dozens) that publishes aircraft flightpaths using
aircraft transponder data.
Following the post, an IAD complaint was filed against the
Sergeant by an HPD civilian employee who suggested that the post might present
a danger to HPD helicopters and personnel, by advertising to would-be bad guys
that there is a way to track the flight paths of HPD helicopters online. The complaint also alleged that the sergeant
had been warned before about making such posts by an HPD Commander. Following the IAD investigation, the
Department suspended the sergeant and argued at the arbitration that it was a
poor exercise of judgment to post something to social media that depicts the
location of HPD personnel performing official duties.
At the arbitration, the Union presented evidence and
testimony that the Twitter post was meant to be nothing more than a
light-hearted joke, and that the screen shot of the helicopter’s flight path
was something that anyone with internet service would be able to see on any one
of dozens of publicly available websites that publish such information. In fact, flight path information obtained
through aircraft transponder data is something that is permitted by the Federal
government because it actually increases aviation safety, rather than decreases
it. Further, the Union argued, the
information did not present a threat to HPD personnel by merely posting the
location of officers performing their official duties, as HPD itself routinely
publishes such information on its very own Twitter account.
Finally, the Union argued, this particular interpretation
and application of the Department’s Social Media policy was overly broad, the
policy itself is unequally applied among Departmental employees, and the
issuance of a 3-Day Suspension in this case was unfair and inconsistent with
the principles of a progressive disciplinary system, especially considering the
Sergeant’s work history.
Following the appeal hearing, the arbitrator agreed with the
Union’s position and issued an award on December 24, 2022, reducing the 3-Day
Suspension to a Written Reprimand.