WASHINGTON — The D.C. firefighter who is on administrative duty for making inflammatory Facebook posts about recent police shootings says he was not calling for violence against officers, and defends his right to his opinions.
The former communications director for D.C. Fire tells WTOP the firefighter should have known better, but the American Civil Liberties Union says the police investigation should be quickly dropped.
Norman Brooks, who has been with D.C. Fire and EMS since 2007, was put on administrative duty Wednesday. In a statement, D.C. Fire said it took the action after learning law enforcement officials were investigating Brooks’ posts on Facebook.
Fox 5 reported posts by Brooks, which have since been deleted, included, “Those pigs in Baton Rouge deserve nothing short of a bullet in the heads,” in response to the fatal shooting of 37-year-old Alton Sterling earlier this week in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
In addition, Brooks allegedly wrote, “These racist (expletive) cops who are murdering our people need to start turning up the same way,” and “It’s time to stop praying, stop protesting, start buying guns, and start protecting ourselves from these crooked (expletive) racist cops.”
In an interview with Fox 5, Brooks said his words were a reaction to several police shootings that have not resulted in criminal prosecutions.
“I’m not wishing death upon anyone,” said Brooks. “All I’m saying is if a person off the street commits a crime, they’re punished for it — these people are not being punished.”
Brooks said the police shootings affect him, his family and others across the country.
“If anybody, whether it’s a criminal cop or a criminal person, tries to attack you, or makes you feel some sort of way inside your own community, you have the right as an American citizen to defend yourself,” Brooks said.
Brooks, who works at Engine 23 in Foggy Bottom on the campus of George Washington University, said he is entitled to his opinions, which were made on his personal Facebook page.
Lon Walls, former communications director of D.C. Fire, who was suspended in 2012 for a Facebook post, said while he understands Brooks’ feelings, he should not have hit post.
“As a government employee, I think folks need to take a second look at what they do and say, because they can be held to a higher standard,” said Walls. “They are indeed public officials, and whether they like it or not, that’s 24/7.”
Walls, a communications consultant and founder of Global Social Media News, believes Brooks’ argument that he made his comment on his personal Facebook page is faulty.
“I learned the hard way — if you’re a public employee, you cannot do that,” said Walls.
In 2012 Walls was suspended from D.C. Fire after posting on his private Twitter and Facebook accounts that a walkout by firefighters during an address by then-Fire Chief Kenneth Ellerbe was the “most blatant, ignorant and racist public display of disrespect I have ever seen.”
While he was angry at the time, Walls said it taught him about the power and responsibility of using social media.
“That was a reality check,” said Walls. “It was a hard lesson, but it was well-learned.”
However, Arthur Spitzer, legal director with the American Civil Liberties Union of the nation’s capital, said Brooks was well-within his rights to say what he did.
“He could have chosen his words better, but what he said was not a threat against anybody; it was just a general expression,” said Spitzer.
“The idea that people should carry guns for self-defense is hardly a criminal idea,” said Spitzer. “Lots of people in the House of Representatives and the Senate think the same thing.”
Spitzer said government employees’ freedom to voice their own opinions depends on the position of the government employee, with people at higher levels having more responsibility for what they say.
In general, a spokesperson for an elected or appointed official would be held more accountable for their words, said Spitzer.
“He’s a firefighter; he doesn’t make policy; nobody has to do what he said,” said Spitzer.
Spitzer said the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled government employees have First Amendment rights.
“There is a balancing test,” said Spitzer. “If a government employee says something, whether on duty or off duty, that makes it impossible to do his job, or makes it difficult for his agency to carry out its mission, then the government can take disciplinary action, including dismissal.”
Based on what he has heard about the case, Spitzer believes Brooks’ comments did not jeopardize his firefighting ability or D.C. Fire’s mission.
During his interview with Fox, Brooks said his speech should not be the center of the discussion.
“You guys are rushing to my house, and you want to come talk to me, about something I’m reacting to,” said Brooks. “Go talk to those cops, because I’m not the one out here killing innocent people.”
In the interview, Brooks said he could have “used a couple better choice words” in his Facebook posts, but defended his right to voice his beliefs.
“I’ve done nothing wrong; I’ve not broken any laws; I’ve acted on my freedom of speech,” he said.
See the Fox 5 interview with Brooks: