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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Court Upholds Officer's Termination for Violating Department Policies in Social Media Activities

Last month, the Wisconsin Supreme Court upheld the termination of a police officer in a lawsuit filed by the officer to challenge his termination. Specifically, the officer claimed that he was terminated in violation of his due process rights after he was investigated for his social media activities. Andrade v. City of Milwaukee Bd. of Fire & Police Commissioners. 

In 2018, the police department arrested a Milwaukee Bucks player, and the incident drew some national attention. Andrade posted about the incident on his personal Facebook page multiple times over the course of a few months, including posts that the police chief found "inappropriate, disrespectful and defamatory." The Bucks player filed a lawsuit against the City and various police officers, and the complaint included references to the officer's social media posts as offensive and racist. The City initiated an internal investigation into the officer's social media conduct, and at the end of the investigation and interviews, charged the officer with violating various department policies. As part of the investigatory process, the police chief consulted with the district attorney's office which expressed concerns about using the officer as a witness in any criminal proceedings because the social media posts could be used by defense counsel to impeach the officer and called into question the officer's trustworthiness and credibility. The district attorney's office went so far as to place the officer on the "never call as a witness" list, meaning the office would not prosecute cases that would rely primarily on the officer's testimony. 

Based on the internal investigation and his communications with the district attorney's office, the police chief issued an order discharging the officer, and provided notice to the City's board of fire and police commissioners which conducted a hearing on the discharge. The board heard testimony and received evidence from both the City and the officer, and at the conclusion of the hearing, upheld the chief's decision to discharge the officer.

The officer appealed to the trial court, which found substantial evidence to support the board's decision. The case made its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which also found in favor of the City, holding that the officer had been provided sufficient due process in the discharge proceedings by being provided an opportunity to present testimony and evidence to the board of fire and police commissioners.


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