2 officers lose jobs over online indiscretions

By Paula Horton, Herald staff writerJanuary 18, 2009 

Failure to recognize that online social media blur the line between personal and professional lives has cost two police officers a job.

Washington State Patrol Cadet Matt Blahut was forced to resign from the state patrol on Jan. 9 after officials received a complaint about content on his Facebook page.

And Kennewick police Officer Matthew Winckler was fired from the force while he was at the police academy because of comments he posted on his blog.

"Everybody's got their right to privacy, but when there's an intermixing of images of the state patrol and state patrol cars ... with less than professional-type comments, images of drinking or conversations surrounding things that might not be moral, it doesn't present a good image for the state patrol," said state patrol Capt. Jeff DeVere.

Blahut, a Prosser High School graduate, had been temporarily based in Ellensburg while he completed the last part of his academy requirements -- eight weeks of on-the-job training with a field training trooper.

He appeared excited to be a trooper, displaying photos of himself on his Facebook page dressed in uniform and posing next to his cruiser. But he also had pictures of himself drinking out of a pitcher of beer and waiting for a ride after a night of partying.

Those actions weren't illegal, but a Kennewick father who saw his daughter looking at Blahut's Facebook page thought they were inappropriate.

"My concerns are not just for me, but for the youth ... who are logging onto that page," the father told the Herald. "They're seeing a guy who's been hired by the state patrol that's supposed to have pretty high standards and pretty high ethics.

"He's saying he's drunk. It shows him in uniform. ... Law enforcement's supposed to set an example for these kids," the father said.

Washington State Patrol officials took the complaint seriously, investigated Blahut and within days gave him the option to resign or be fired.

Though Blahut's Facebook page was only accessible by people who were on his "friends" list, state patrol officials took swift action after seeing the vulgar language and photos of some "questionable activity" combined with pictures of Blahut's professional life, DeVere said.

"He put the patrol in a bad light," DeVere said. "When you have a trooper that effectively can take authority over somebody and erect power, you need to have confidence that their behavior in their public and private lives is beyond approach."

Judgment and integrity is a big part of a trooper's job, DeVere said.

"If we see this kind of judgment early on in somebody's career, what's to come?" he said. "Putting these types of pictures (online) ... does not show good judgment. If you look at some of the activities being depicted, it's clear this guy shouldn't be a trooper at all."

The state patrol tells new hires to be careful about what they post online and repeatedly warns what constitutes unacceptable behavior.

"We go through a lengthy hiring process and training ... and really invest a lot of time in these folks," DeVere said. "It's really disappointing we still had this incident occur."

The state patrol is not alone in turning to the Internet to get a better look at a candidate, or in having to fire someone because of information posted on the Internet.

Officials at the Franklin County Sheriff's Office and the Pasco Police Department say checking websites such as MySpace and Facebook is just another part of the extensive background checks that are done, including checking financial history and criminal records.

Neither agency has had any issues with employees posting inappropriate things online.

Kennewick Police Chief Ken Hohenberg, however, fired Winckler in November because of comments he made while blogging about his experiences at the academy.

"This particular recruit had made some poor decisions and as a result of that did bring discredit to the department," Hohenberg said. "... It's always disappointing if you lose somebody early in the process ... but we really need people out there with good people skills and common sense."

Winckler, 26, was on the Kennewick payroll for just three months after deciding to leave his job as a software developer and fulfill a dream of becoming a police officer.

On his blog, he talked about the rigorous testing he had to go through to get hired, posted pictures of himself after getting sprayed with pepper spray in the face, and even showed training videos that he watched in class.

But he lost his job because of some "disparaging comments" made "about the maturity of some of my anonymous classmates," Winckler wrote in a post on Nov. 3, two days after he was fired.

Winckler said he realized his comments were "simply unprofessional and shouldn't have been written in the first place, no matter how true they might have been."

"... In all, I don't see any particular injustice in what has happened," Winckler wrote. "To the contrary, I see strict justice. I made a mistake ... and I received my just due for that mistake."

Both Blahut and Winckler have unlisted phone numbers and could not be reached for comment.

Law enforcement officers are trained on rules of conduct and that it's important to not bring discredit to their agency because it can affect public trust.

They can do anything a private citizen can do, but they are expected to be role models and there is a higher expectation of them because of the authority they have, Hohenberg said.

"One of the key things law enforcement agencies look for in a candidate is their judgment. If somebody's doing something that brings disrespect to the profession, it also tells you you're dealing with a candidate where there's maturity issues or poor judgment issues," Hohenberg said.

"When they're making a decision on power of arrest and use of force, up to and including deadly force, you want people demonstrating the best judgment," he said.

That doesn't mean officers aren't entitled to private lives or should be barred from having MySpace or Facebook pages, but they do have to remember they're being scrutinized by their supervisors, criminals they arrest and the community they're supposed to keep safe.

"Anybody who has taken the oath of office and understands the privilege it is to serve the citizens of the community also understands the responsibility that goes with the oath of office," Hohenberg said.

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