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Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Orlando activists call for termination of police officer who called people 'savages'

Posted By on Tue, Oct 9, 2018 at 5:55 PM

  • Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Orlando activists gathered Monday at the steps of City Hall to call for the termination of a police officer who made offensive comments online and called "savages" a group of patrons from the LGBTQ nightclub Parliament House.

"We believe that is is imperative for communities to take action against police brutality, police misconduct and fix the broken system of police accountability across the state of Florida and our country," says Stacey Ali, an activist who helped organize the Blackout Hate Rally.

The complaints against Orlando Police Officer Robert Schellhorn began after comments he made on using personal Facebook in August 2017. On a post discussing two Kissimmee police officers who were killed in a shooting, Schellhorn reportedly ranted about athletes protesting police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem, calling them "overpaid thugs." Activists have called these comments racist, an accusation which Schellhorn has denied.

"What exactly are the 'black rights' these useless savages are standing up for?" Schellhorn wrote, according to WKMG 6. "Do black folks somehow have different or greater rights than everyone else?"

The officer also described Heather Heyer, the woman killed by an alleged white supremacist who rammed his car into a group of protesters in Charlottesville, as an "asshole killed by another asshole," the Orlando Sentinel reports. 

OPD's internal affairs investigation found Schellhorn's comments "objectively offensive" and a violation of OPD's social media policy, according to the Sentinel. The officer was suspended without pay for 80 hours but instead forfeited accrued time off.

"No one is more ashamed or embarrassed by the conduct and statements of Officer Schellhorn as I am as the leader of this agency," Chief John Mina said.

After the initial incident, May 2017 footage from a body camera surfaced showing Schellhorn clearing Parliament House patrons after closing time and using pepper spray to break up the crowd after a fight.

"Sunday nights are just busy, but all these (expletive) savages that have (expletive) come out," the officer is heard saying on the video published by WKMG 6. "Time to go, savages."

Schellhorn was again disciplined with another 80-hour unpaid suspension that he avoided by forfeiting paid time off. In June, the city's Citizens' Police Review Board recommended Schellhorn's termination, along with a zero-tolerance social media policy for officers, which OPD has since adopted.

"There's a toxic culture [at OPD] for officers who serve our community valiantly," says T.J. Legacy-Cole, another activist who organized the Monday rally and filed a complaint against Schellhorn. "They cannot speak out against misconduct, excessive force because they have fear of retaliation. … The problem is the system. This is not about one police officer, or the 'bad apple' narrative. Officer Robert Schellhorn is a microcosm of what is wrong and what is going on across this country when it comes to police accountability."

Robin Harris, another activist, says communities of color in Orlando have "over-policing that constantly terrorizes us" and "under-policing that when things happen in our neighborhoods, [police] will not take a stance." Pulse survivor Ricardo Negrón-Almodovar with LatinoJustice, says Schellhorn's comments show he's "not fit of being an officer."

"As a member of the LGBTQ Latinx community, I am appalled by his behavior toward members of our community," Negrón-Almodovar says. "The only 'savage' in this story is the man that lives behind his badge, abusing society and [treating] our people in a demeaning and humiliating way. We won't let his actions go unnoticed, or the actions of anybody who behaves like this."

At the Orlando City Council meeting after the rally, Mayor Buddy Dyer told activists that while Schellhorn's comments were "offensive and reprehensible," commissioners don't have the authority to impose disciplinary action, according to the Sentinel.

"Pursuant to state law, disciplinary procedures are a mandatory subject of collective bargaining," says Jessica Garcia, a spokesperson for the mayor's office, in a statement. "The City and the police union have a bargained procedure in place that cannot be changed without bargaining."

"Police officers are also protected by a state 'Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights," Garcia adds. "Those rights include a statute of limitations, requiring discipline within 180 days of the agency receiving notice of the allegations. There is additional language in the police collective bargaining agreement that prevents the Citizen Police Review Board from taking any disciplinary action."

OPD Sgt. Eduardo Bernal says Chief Mina "appreciates the call for action and everyone’s right to peacefully protest and share their opinions."

"We continuously look at our policies and procedures to implement best practices, in an effort to uphold our officers to the highest standards," Bernal says in a statement. "We have updated our social media policy to include possible discipline of termination."

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