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Political sticker inside police car raises questions and doubts
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Political sticker inside police car raises questions and doubts

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Michael Batalia didn’t make lightly his decision to speak up.

Complaining about a police officer can be unnerving even for something that seems clear.

Batalia, out for dinner April 17 with his son, had paid his check and walked out of the Hops Burger Bar. A patrol officer, a young guy, drove up onto the sidewalk and went inside.

Not in any sort of rush or hurry; cops eat, too.

But when Batalia looked inside the patrol car — seriously, who can resist a peek? — a sticker affixed to an in-car computer caused a double take.

“One of those Trump skulls with an American flag design. With the Trump hair on the top,” he said.

Odd? For sure. Intimidating? Maybe. But definitely political, and something that’s obviously out of bounds for government employees — especially an on-duty cop in a marked cruiser in a public place.

“I don’t expect any civil servant, much less a police officer, to have anything political on their (equipment),” Batalia said. “I don’t think any citizen expects to see overt political statements by police, whether that’s for Trump or the current president.”

Black and white issue

On its face, a fair number of otherwise reasonable people might think, “What’s the big deal? It’s only a sticker.”

Those people reflexively may fall back to a defensive, default position by blaming “cancel culture” or political correctness. Some even may cite free speech rights protected under the First Amendment.

But it’s not that simple.

Frayda Bluestein, a professor of public law and government at the University of North Carolina’s School of Government — the right-down-the-middle, go-to authority on state and municipal law — points that out clearly in an election season blog post.

“City employees can’t, in their official capacity, engage in campaign activities while on the job,” she wrote, citing chapter and verse relevant state laws. (G.S. 10A-169, if you’re curious.

No canvassing, no t-shirts and no soliciting. No “Vote for Joines” signs on city garbage trucks, and no Trump stickers in cop cars. Period.

Similarly, the professor writes, public employees “can’t be fired or otherwise treated negatively because of their off-duty political actions or preferences.”

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Former Sheriff Bill Schatzman ran afoul of that one several years back for moving to fire a deputy who’d bought a high-dollar chance in a raffle — a motorcycle was the prize and the number of tickets small — that raised money for another candidate.

“Employees are free to exercise their First Amendment right to engage in campaign activities, as long as they don’t do it at work and as long as no public resources are involved.”

Even something as simple as a sticker affixed an in-car computer. It really seems like common sense.

“It disturbed me enough to drop a note,” Batalia said. “More importantly, are there other officers doing this? Is there a subculture (in the department) or just a one-off?”

It’s a fair question.

Under greater scrutiny

No one with an attention span longer than that of a gnat should be shocked to learn that police officers work in a fishbowl where all the guppies have cameras.

That shouldn’t be a bad thing. You’d hope that good cops wouldn’t tolerate — or cover for — a handful of bad ones.

Police, particularly following rioting Jan. 6 at the Capitol, also are finding their off-duty actions and social media use being watched, too.

And that’s fair. Cops should enforce laws, not make them — or break them.

Lori Sykes, an assistant city attorney who works with the police department said recently that officials tried without success to determine which officer may have been involved.

Which is fine, but the purpose of raising the issue wasn’t to name an individual or throw him into a woodchipper.

A day or two checking pawnshop receipts, and a reminder to the other 500-some sworn to tread lightly on the political stuff seems right.

Sykes noted that city policy mirrors state statutes, and that a laptop inside a police car could have been city property, an officer’s personal computer or even seized evidence.

Still, the incident serves to underscore the obvious: Build trust at every opportunity. Be neutral on the job. Mind the social media, too. Criminal defense lawyers are, and being questioned on the witness stand about a biased post wouldn’t be good for anyone.

“Given all the issues with police violence in this country this kind of display doesn’t build confidence and it breeds greater mistrust of the policing system,” Batalia wrote in his original email.

It’s a fair point.

336-727-7481

@scottsextonwsj

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