The Police NewsHouston
3-Day Suspension Reduced to Written Reprimand
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.