By Jeri Davis and Bob Conrad
The officer pictured above is not the one discussed in this article.
The Sparks City Council held a meeting Monday. Prior to taking up its agenda items, members listened to public comment—the majority of which was provided concerning Sparks Police Officer George Forbush, who is being investigated by his department over allegations he made threatening comments on social media.
Two callers made comments via phone—one at the beginning of the meeting and one at the end. Both spoke against Forbush. The first also spoke about the lack of response from the council concerning the killing of 18-year-old Sparks man Miciah Lee in January by Sparks Police.
“Former mayor Geno Martini even called in [to a council meeting] to say it was ‘funny’ that Miciah Lee was killed while breaking the law—and nobody on the council pushed back on that disgusting statement,” he said. “We have laws and a court system for a reason. Police are not granted the power to summarily execute anyone for breaking the law. And I want the city council to say to the police and to this city that they do not have the permission to execute citizens.”
Of Forbush, he said, “I don’t want any police officer to emulate Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson in his Death Wish movies.”
Another 15 people submitted emails to be read to the council members. Several commenters asked the council members to speak to their own personal feelings on the matter. They did not.
Councilmember Donald Abbot posted online that he is aware of the officer’s comments but could not comment on them pending the results of an investigation.
Many of the letters were written in support of Officer Forbush. Those who wrote in support of Forbush’s behavior outnumbered those opposed to it. One writer said Forbush’s views are shared by the majority of the Sparks community.
“I have known George for quite some time, and he is a stand up officer as well as a stand up civilian,” the commenter wrote. “The disdain he shares for certain groups is shared by the vast majority in our community. Some are just more outspoken than others, and I’m grateful that they are.”
Some of that disdain includes killing leftists and those who support Black lives. The account in his name, since made private, referred to those people as “pussies,” among other epithets, such as disparaging comments about somebody who is transgendered. It also expressed loathing for Governor Steve Sisolak, U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen and criminal defense attorneys.
Many of the letters written in support of Forbush expressed the belief that dismissing an officer from his or her post because of comments made on social media while off-duty would be a violation of the officer’s First Amendment rights.
“The fact that activist groups are trying to destroy our boys, and ladies, in blue over something as petty as sharing their public opinions condemning vandalism, riots and anarchy taking place throughout the country or Reno or even our own city hall—well, it’s very sad,” one commenter wrote. “The vast majority of the people share Mr. Forbush’s frustration. And we are all entitled to our right to free speech as outlined in the Bill of Rights.”
Free speech rights not the same for police
Val Van Brocklin—an international law enforcement trainer and former state and federal prosecutor—teaches officers how to use social media and avoid hurting their reputations or losing their jobs.
According to a primer article written by Van Brocklin for Police1.com—a website that provides news and information sharing for officers and departments—police officers do lose some of their free speech rights when they’re sworn in.
She explains that the U.S. Supreme Court set the current standard for government employee speech in 2006 in case Garcetti v. Ceballos. An officer’s speech, according to Van Brocklin, must clear three hurdles to be considered protected:
“1. It must be about a matter of ‘public concern’ that is, ‘a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public at the time of the publication.’ ‘Whether the speech addresses a matter of public concern must be determined by the content, form, and the context of a given statement, as revealed by the whole record.’
“And, 2. It must be made as a private citizen, not as part of the employee’s official duties.
“If, and only if, the speech meets 1 and 2, the court applies an additional ‘balancing’ test.
“3. Do the interests of the employee in the speech outweigh the interests of the employer in the safe, efficient, and effective accomplishment of its mission?”
Van Brocklin explains that the third hurdle is the hardest to clear. She also, in the same article, makes her own opinions clear, writing, “I condemn expressions of bigotry by police officers. It not only makes the job more dangerous for them and other officers, it casts doubt on their ability to protect and serve fairly – which hurts this most noble profession.”
Law enforcement has come under fire during the last several months, as social unrest sparked by the murder of Minneapolis man George Floyd in May—and fomented by a developing cycle of dual, opposing protests—continues. That trend has been seen locally as well.
A die-in protest was held just before Washoe County District Attorney Chris Hicks released the final report of Miciah Lee’s killing by Sparks Police. That ruling, like most civilian deaths by police officers, was ruled justified.
The Sparks government building last month was vandalized, likely in response to the current and former Sparks mayors making comments in support of law enforcement, and, in former Mayor Geno Martini’s case, chastising those critical of police.
In Douglas County, Sheriff Dan Coverley was protested against and supported by dueling crowds after telling the local library board of trustees there to reconsider calling 911 for help if they intended to make a statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
That statement was followed by a demonstration this past weekend that saw hundreds counter about two dozen Black Lives Matter supporters. Counter protesters threatened, spit on and assaulted members of the news media and the BLM protesters.