At Least Two Phoenix Cops to Be Disciplined Over Facebook Posts

Phoenix police officers' Facebook posts
Phoenix police officers' Facebook posts Facebook
At least two sergeants with the Phoenix Police Department will be disciplined for sharing inflammatory Facebook posts vilifying Muslims and maligning others. But rather than face consequences for violating department policy, some officers are bemoaning their perceived lack of free speech, applying for jobs elsewhere, and even suing the city for trying to discipline them at all.

In June, hundreds of offensive Facebook posts from Phoenix police officers were made public by the Plain View Project, a database created by a team of Philadelphia attorneys in an effort to catalog bigotry and racism among police officers nationwide. Posts from Phoenix police officers and sergeants joking about Muslim people using goats as sex slaves, shooting former President Obama in the face, and killing protesters ignited backlash and prompted Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams to launch an internal investigation into the posts.

Now, Phoenix New Times has learned, the Phoenix Police Department has completed its investigation into those posts and has referred two sergeants to the Disciplinary Review Board. The department's Professional Standards Bureau (PSB) determined Sergeants Juan Hernandez and Stefani McMichael-Gombar committed Class III and Class II violations respectively, according to notes on the PSB's investigation included in a lawsuit Hernandez filed against the city on October 9.

Per the Phoenix Police Department's operations orders, a Class II violation means McMichael-Gombar committed acts "adversely affecting Department operations or involving egregious unprofessional behavior." McMichael-Gombar's case will be referred to Williams or the Discipline Review Board. She could be suspended for 24 to 40 hours, or demoted.

Yet it seems like McMichael-Gombar's already made other plans. "Today I applied for a job!!!!" wrote McMichael-Gombar in a Facebook post shared in mid-August. "Not a new position within the department; a new job! I have less than 7 months left at a career I have loved and given my best. Loved it until recently when common sense is no longer a requirement. In 7 months you will hear much more but since we don't have the freedom of speech ... it will have to wait!"

The screenshot was shared with New Times by someone who is friends with McMichael-Gombar on Facebook.

Due to her privacy settings, McMichael-Gombar's posts were not among the hundreds published by the Plain View Project (though posts from her husband, Sergeant Gary Gombar, were). However, as with the August post, a Facebook friend of McMichael-Gombar's took screenshots of her most egregious posts and shared them with New Times.

After New Times wrote an article in June about McMichael-Gombar's role teaching students at Moon Valley High School and published some of those posts, a police employee from the Professional Standards Bureau called New Times to ask for some of the posts, and mentioned that McMichael-Gombar is also under investigation. New Times ultimately did not share any posts with PSB investigators.

"Something to think about for those of you who put ALL officers in a pile," wrote McMichael-Gombar alongside one of the posts that New Times previously published, a meme of a 911 dispatcher refusing to help someone in an emergency because that person had criticized the police. "Interesting read ... guess I should protest!" she wrote in another post linking to a story (which isn't true or accurate) about "The Forgotten White Slaves."

click to enlarge Stefani Gombar-McMichael's Facebook posts. - FACEBOOK
Stefani Gombar-McMichael's Facebook posts.
Meanwhile, Sergeant Juan Hernandez's Class III violation means he committed "acts so serious and malicious in nature they may require immediate intervention by the Police Chief with the immediate removal of all employee responsibilities." Williams previously had said she pulled some officers off their enforcement assignments as the investigation into officers' Facebook posts got underway, though she declined to specify which officers or how many.

Hernandez is facing a 40-, 80-, or 240-hour suspension, demotion, or even termination. His discipline was set to be decided at an October 15 Discipline Review Board meeting, but Sergeant Tommy Thompson, a spokesperson for the department, said that's been delayed.

"Today a judge took a procedural action on a Temporary Restraining Order that essentially hits the 'pause' button on the disciplinary process for that employee," Thompson said in an October 10 statement sent to reporters. "The decision was not a ruling on whether misconduct took place. Rather it sets a timeline for approaching the case."

As New Times reported last week, Hernandez filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Phoenix and Chief Williams, alleging that his First Amendment right to free speech was violated by what he calls the Phoenix Police Department's "unconstitutional" social media policy. As part of the lawsuit, Hernandez requested a restraining order to prevent Phoenix and Williams "from taking any adverse actions against" him.

In June, PSB investigators grilled Hernandez for posts he shared calling Muslims rapists and joking about a cabbie telling a Muslim passenger to "piss off and wait for a camel," among others. Hernandez claimed he made the posts "to drive discussion about assimilation" and said he was "concerned Islamic refugees weren't assimilating to society."

"My only point was that, uh, again, if these people assimilate, they need to, that's what they need to do and, uh, accept our culture," Hernandez told PSB investigators. "People needed to see that and I thought they needed to discuss that."

click to enlarge Sergeant Juan Hernandez's posts - FACEBOOK
Sergeant Juan Hernandez's posts
Ultimately, the PSB determined that Hernandez violated the department's social media policy by sharing posts that contained "religiously insensitive innuendos related to Muslims and the Islamic religion." The posts, PSB investigators wrote, "caused major reputation damage to the Phoenix Police Department, exposed himself and the Phoenix Police Department to public mistrust, and violated basic Department values."

While Hernandez and McMichael-Gombar are decrying their perceived lack of free speech, the Phoenix Police Department's operations orders clearly state "Department personnel are free to express themselves as private citizens on social media sites to the degree that their speech does not impair working relationships of this Department, are detrimental to the mission and functions of the Department, undermine respect or public confidence in the Department" or "cause embarrassment to the Department or City."

By disparaging Muslims and joking about refusing to help 911 callers who had once criticized the police, Hernandez and McMichael-Gombar's posts could "impair the working relationships" of the Phoenix Police Department by sowing further distrust between Phoenix police and the communities they serve, particularly by mocking citizens and making it appear as though they would refuse to help certain people.

According to the PSB investigation included in Hernandez's lawsuit, Hernandez and McMichael-Gombar were held to a higher standard because they are sergeants. Phoenix police sergeants are expected to "maintain moral integrity" and "work cooperatively, courteously, but firmly with all segments of the public," department policy states.

Meaning that as the PSB investigations into officers' Facebook posts nears an end, one can expect to see more of the nine sergeants included in the Plain View Project's database referred to the Discipline Review Board. Among them are Gary Gombar (McMichael-Gombar's husband), Sean Coutts, and David Head.

As New Times previously has reported, in August 2015, Gombar commented on a video of a car ramming into a man with a photo of a bloodied truck with a mangled corpse stuck to the front captioned, "Just drove through Ferguson. Didn't see any problems."

click to enlarge Gary Gombar's Facebook post. - FACEBOOK
Gary Gombar's Facebook post.
In another private post shared with New Times, Sergeant Gombar liked a status posted by a man named Tim Salts that stated: "Is it just me? Doesn't it seem TV advertising is pushing interracial relationships. I've noticed abundance of Black & White couples lately. Casio [sic] Gambling ads, Mattress ads showing couples in bed and now Erectile dysfunction ad showing a Black man standing at the alter [sic] with a White woman, really? Animals may be smarter after all. At least they mate with their own."

More recently, in August 2017, Sergeant Sean Coutts changed his Facebook profile picture to a screenshot of a news story about an anti-Trump protester whom police had shot in the genitals with a rubber bullet. Six years earlier, the family of Tony Arambula settled a lawsuit against Coutts and the city of Phoenix for $1.75 million after one of Coutts' officers shot Arambula in the back six times and Coutts tried to cover it up, according to the lawsuit.

Coutts is one of 11 Phoenix police officers whose Facebook posts were included in the database of offensive posts who is also alleged to have been directly involved in either the death or serious injury of people they were called to detain or assist.

Sergeant Head is among those 11. On January 4, 2017, police were called to the Maryvale Community Center after 43-year-old Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin tried to enter a restroom with his service dog and got into an argument with a city employee who would not let him in. Once there, police found Muhaymin had a warrant out for his arrest.

Muhaymin asked police to call his sister to come pick up the dog, but the officers ignored him. Muhaymin refused to put the dog down, so cops knocked the dog out of his arms and forced him to the ground. Although Muhaymin repeatedly told officers he could not breathe during the forceful arrest, they ignored him, according to the lawsuit filed by his sister.

"Now you're gonna be charged with a felony, dumbass," says one officer as Muhaymin screams in pain, as can be heard on the videos released after his death.

Muhaymin had a heart attack and died while being detained. His family is suing the city of Phoenix and Head for Muhaymin's wrongful death. Head was included in the Plain View Project's database for his post saying two teenage boys who refused to go to school "need a good ass kicking."

Posts from one Phoenix police lieutenant were also included in the database. Patrick Tortorici shared an image in 2014 captioned, "Don't like cops? Next time call a crackhead." He also shared a photo of different types of bullets captioned, "New microchips allow terrorists to speak to God, must be injected into forehead or chest."

click to enlarge Phoenix police lieutenant Patrick Tortorici's posts - FACEBOOK
Phoenix police lieutenant Patrick Tortorici's posts
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Meg O'Connor was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from April 2019 to April 2020.