Jasper, AL – The Jasper police chief said that the four police officers seen making a circular “okay” hand gesture in local newspaper photograph have not been suspended, despite the mayor’s Monday announcement to the contrary.
"That was a miscommunication on my part,” Jasper Police Chief J.C. Poe told WBMA on Wednesday, as news of the officers’ suspension garnered nationwide attention.
“At no time has an officer lost pay. Now, I'm not saying that they won't, but that's something that we've got to determine and we've got a due process that we need to follow through our Civil Service Board," the chief said.
"I hate the fact that some personnel of our department have done something that has been offensive to some people in our community and our goal is to make sure that doesn't happen in the future,'' Chief Poe told AL.com. "I'm not about that, this mayor is not about that, the city is not about that. And, we definitely won't tolerate it."
The photo was intended as a way to recognize the Jasper drug terrorism task force officers’ hard work in connection with a recent gun and narcotics bust in the area, said Jasper Mayor David O’Mary, who had arranged to have the image taken, according to WBMA.
After the photo was published in the Daily Mountain Eagle, some people complained that the four Jasper officers were making a racist hand gesture that symbolized “white power,” the news outlet reported.
O’Mary said he had suspended the officers for two weeks, and that one week of the suspension period would be without pay.
"We talked to two senior African-American law enforcement officers that are on the City of Jasper's payroll and they think it's fair and that's a pretty good sounding board,” the mayor said.
He said that all four of the officers had “perfect” records prior to this incident, and that he would have likely imposed harsher punishment if their histories with the department weren’t so exemplary.
“That's contradictory to how we run our city. That's not our mindset. That's not the way we do things and they used poor judgement,” the mayor said.
The officers were actually following a viral trend known as the "circle game" where the goal is to make somebody look at your hand making the OK sign below waist level.
"It's a kid game. Going around and hitting everybody when you see it," one Jasper resident told WBMA immediately after viewing the photo.
The myth that the OK sign actually meant "white power" was started by internet trolls on 4chan, an anonymous message board, in February of 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“We must flood twitter and other social media websites with spam, claiming that the OK hand sign is a symbol of white supremacy,” the anonymous poster wrote, according to ADL, a civil rights organization. “Leftists have dug so deep down into their lunacy. We must force [them] to dig more, until the rest of society ain’t going anywhere near that s--t.”
Users encouraged people to perpetuate the hoax using hashtags such as # PowerHandPrivilege and # NotOkay, created fake social media and email accounts, and bombarded journalists and civil rights organizations with the misinformation.
The four officers, who are members of the department’s now-sidelined Critical Incident Response Team, have received letters specifying the allegations against them, Chief Poe told WBMA.
The complaints included behavior unbecoming that of a police officer and dereliction of duty, AL.com reported. The officers have seven days to respond.
If an investigation determines that punishment is warranted, Chief Poe will determine what sanctions are appropriate. The officers would also have the right to appeal any disciplinary action imposed against them through the Walker County Civil Service Board, the chief explained, according to WBMA.
None of the violations are punishable by firing, AL.com reported.
Chief Poe noted that he did not believe the officers were intentionally projecting a racist message by making the hand gestures, but also did not find their conduct to be appropriate, according to WBMA.
"I don't think that they meant any ill-will towards anybody. I think they were being less than professional as I see it,” he said. “They're extremely remorseful. Of course, wished it had never happened and very apologetic but still we're here where we are today."
Chief Poe has also begun looking into establishing a sensitivity training for the police department, AL.com reported.
"We will do this by the book and nobody's going to be mistreated. We've done this several other times,” he said. “Unfortunately, when you have as many employees as we do, everybody's not always acting right all the time. But we address the issues, try to be fair to everybody involved and move on."
"We're going to be fair to the officers in this but also our utmost goal is to be fair to the community and make sure the community does not lose sight that this police department is here to serve them and protect them and them be comfortable in calling on us if they have a need,'' he added.
The chief said he wanted the community to be assured that he was “addressing the problem.”
“We’re not going to shy away from that or sugar coat it,” he said.