New Jersey: Police officer who posted racist Facebook threat against Obama will keep job

Coon Trapper Facebook page

PLEASANTVILLE — A village police officer who was suspended after he apparently posted a vulgar, racist post about President Barack Obama on his Facebook page last month will keep his job after he accepted a litany of disciplinary measures Monday night.

The Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution that allows Police Chief Richard Love to impose on Officer Peter Burns a 60-day suspension without pay or benefits; forfeiture of 25 vacation days; a psychological evaluation; a training program focused on diversity and sensitivity; and a two-year “last chance” agreement, in effect a probationary period.

“Officer Burns has provided an apology to the community at large and to Pleasantville residents, as well as to the chief and his colleagues in the police department,” Mayor Peter Scherer said.

The post, posted on Dec. 11 on a Facebook profile Burns operated under the name “Coon Trapper,” contained a racial slur, using the “N word” to describe Obama and calling him “un-American.” “The fact that he (Obama) is still alive bewilders me,” Burns wrote in the diatribe. “Go die in a shallow grave you Muslim commie … ”

Scherer described the Facebook post as “offensive on many levels – its obscenity, its racial language and its implied threat to the president.”

A screenshot of the rant was obtained by The Journal News and shown to Love on Dec. 16. Love, who described the post as “despicable” and said it was “totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated,” suspended Burns the next day.

“These statements undermine the confidence in law enforcement, and they cast doubt on the ability of this officer to fulfill his sworn duty in a fair, unbiased manner,” Scherer said. “I want to be clear that the village has no interest in the political beliefs of its employees.”

He said the village does, however, have a responsibility to ensure that its employees’ actions and statements do not harm their ability to fulfill their duties.

Burns, 35, a Valhalla native, joined the department in 2004 and receives an annual salary of $98,949.

The incident was the latest to raise questions about standards for public servants and the balance between personal and private use of social media.

In 2009, three Harrison police officers were suspended and demoted after making lewd comments about then-Supervisor Joan Walsh and swapping racist jokes about Obama. Last year, 17 New York City cops were suspended for posting racist and offensive comments on a Facebook page devoted to the city’s 2011 West Indian Day Parade.

Those episodes, and similar incidents across the country, have prompted many police and government agencies to adopt social media policies for their employees. Pleasantville police do not have such a policy.

Burns’ Facebook profile page, which was deleted the day he was suspended, contained photos of Burns in hunting gear and camouflage, and included links to hunting and animal trapping websites. The page’s settings were private, meaning only those who “friended” Burns had access to the Obama post and others on his Facebook page.

Some have portrayed village police as racist following the shooting death of Danroy Henry, a black Pace University football player, by Pleasantville Officer Aaron Hess, who is white.

The Oct. 17, 2010, incident took place outside a Thornwood bar where Hess joined a number of Mount Pleasant officers responding to reports of a disturbance involving a large crowd. Henry was shot when he started to drive away. Hess, who ended up on the hood of Henry’s car, was injured and has since retired.

The case has resulted in a number of lawsuits. A county grand jury cleared officers of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting.

Journal News, 27 January 2014