Springfield, MA – A rookie Springfield police officer was fired after she posted a picture of her niece protesting police brutality in Atlanta on May 29 while holding a sign that said “Shoot the F–k Back.”
The picture, posted by then-Springfield Police Detective Florissa Fuentes on May 30, also showed a friend of her niece’s holding a sign that said “Who do we call when the murderer wears the badge?” MassLive reported.
There were flames in the background of the picture because it was taken as hundreds of violent protesters attacked police and looted and burned parts of Atlanta in the days following the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in the custody of the Minneapolis police on May 25.
Then-Det. Fuentes was hit with a wall of outrage from officers in her police department, MassLive reported.
The officer, who is Puerto Rican, said she was trying to support her niece and didn’t think about how the message would be perceived by her fellow officers.
“After I posted it, I started getting calls and texts from co-workers,” former Det. Fuentes told MassLive. “I was initially confused, but then I realized they thought I was being anti-cop. I wasn’t. I was just supporting my niece’s activism. I had no malicious intent, and I wouldn’t put a target on my own back. I’m out there on the streets every day like everyone else.”
The detective, who had joined the Springfield Police Department less than a year earlier, deleted her Instagram post, but not fast enough.
Springfield Police Detective Bureau Captain Trent Duda called then-Det. Fuentes on June 1 and told her the police commissioner wanted to see her, MassLive reported.
“I said, ‘Cap, I already know why you’re calling. I’m sorry. I meant no malicious intent and I already took it down,‘” Fuentes recalled. “Capt. Duda said Commissioner Clapprood was mad and wanted to see me the next day, but hoped if [I] said exactly what I said to him, I should be fine.”
And the captain wrote her up citing a “possible” violation of the department’s social media policy, MassLive reported.
But that turned out to be the least of the new detective’s problems.
Springfield Police Commissioner Cheryl Clapprood had already done several favors for Det. Fuentes in the short time since she had sworn her into the department on July 18, 2019, MassLive reported.
First, the commissioner had made the new officer a detective, not as a “promotion,” but to help accommodate her difficult schedule as a single mother.
Then, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, Commissioner Clapprood granted Det. Fuentes a hardship concession so she could stay home and homeschool her children, MassLive reported.
When Det. Fuentes went before the commissioner and multiple other members of the Command Staff and her union president to apologize for her thoughtless Instagram post, Commissioner Clapprood told the detective she was upset, disappointed, and embarrassed by her actions.
“The commissioner said: ‘You have to find a way to fix this. I’m getting pressure from the mayor’s office,‘” Fuentes told MassLive. “I said, ‘Ok, I’m sorry. How do I fix it?’ Officer Gentile suggested I post an apology on the police union Facebook page. So I went home later and I did.”
Springfield Police Officer Joseph Gentile is president of the Springfield Police Patrolmen’s Association.
The police commissioner later denied having told Det. Fuentes to “fix it,” MassLive reported.
“I never told her to just fix it,” Commissioner Clapprood said. “That’s the issue with social media – once you post something it’s out there and you can’t retract it. That post was hurtful to many of her co-workers.”
“It was the second issue she had, and being on probation, it was my decision to terminate her employment,” the commissioner explained, referencing the accommodations and consideration the department had previously given to the rookie officer.
Det. Fuentes went home after the meeting and posted an apology to the police union’s Facebook page, but for some of her colleagues, that only made things worse, and eventually she took that down, too, MassLive reported.
“To my fellow officers, I recently shared a post that a family member had posted of themselves protesting the recent death of George Floyd,” the detective wrote. “I did not share this photo with any malicious intent and I should have thought of how others might perceive it. I apologize to all of those who I have offended.”
“I am not anti-cop. I wear my badge proudly and have committed my life and career to being a police officer,” the rookie added.
Some of her fellow officers replied in a manner that showed they had accepted her apology, but multiple officers posted furious responses that indicated they didn’t want to work with her, MassLive reported.
“Keep your apology!” one Springfield officer wrote in the comments. “You’re too dangerous or too stupid to safely associate with.”
Det. Fuentes said supervisors advised her to “keep her head down” and to keep a low profile in the office rather than patrolling the streets, MassLive reported.
A few days later, Springfield Police Deputy Chief Rupert Daniel asked “all sworn” officers in an email to participate in a group photo on June 19 at Riverfront Park to show “we are unified, diverse and we still get along.”
Det. Fuentes showed up and smiled for the camera despite some nasty comments from other officers, but then two hours later she got a call from the union president, MassLive reported.
Officer Gentile told Det. Fuentes that she could resign or be terminated – she chose to be fired.
“I felt used,” Fuentes complained. “The commissioner waved at me from her car while I was there. They all knew what was happening.”
There’s not much the former police detective can do about her termination because she was one month shy of being on the department for a year, meaning Det. Fuentes was still on probation when she was fired, MassLive reported.
While rookie officers are on probation, they are not protected by the same rights that protect officers who have been on the department for longer than a year.
A number of first responders in the same area have resigned or been terminated for social media posts that violated policy in recent weeks, MassLive reported.
However, civil rights activists who have been critical of the Springfield PD took exception to Fuentes’ termination, claimed it was because she was Latina, and said it doesn’t compare with other individuals’ missteps.
“This is apples and oranges,” Bishop Talbert Swan II complained to MassLive. “I doubt the outcome of this would have been the same if she was white. There is a difference in expressing an opinion that might not be popular, and an overtly racist opinion.”
But Western New England School of Law Professor Harris Freeman said the situation was complicated because speech interpreted as “disrupting the workplace” isn’t protected.
“The fact the she is a police officer and that fact that the Instagram post was saying ‘shoot back’ at the police makes this a very challenging case,” Freeman told MassLive.