Monday, November 20, 2017
Public safety

Pinellas sheriff warns deputies after learning of racially charged Facebook posts

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Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri has cautioned his deputies about what they share online after learning about a detective's racially charged Facebook posts.

Gualtieri sent out an agencywide email after being told of Detective Thomas Swetokos' posts by a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

"It has been noticed that some members are posting things on social media," he wrote, "using profanity and making statements that may be interpreted as derogatory or in some cases even discriminatory."

Swetokos, a 15-year veteran with the Sheriff's Office, has since taken down the entries, which he posted last year. In one post, he shared a photo depicting civil rights activists Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson that calls them "a-------," along with a statement that read they were "working so hard keeping racism alive."

He also commented on a story about a Tampa man accused of killing and cooking a dog, saying that the man was likely the relative of "that dumb b----" from the Trayvon Martin trial.

The news about Swetokos' Facebook posts come on the heels of allegations — now under investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union — made by undocumented Hispanic immigrants who contend that he targeted them.

Gualtieri said he's not convinced those claims are true, but he expressed concern about his deputies posting questionable comments on social media.

In a meeting with a supervisor, Swetokos said he did not remember making the posts and apologized, the sheriff said.

Swetokos declined to comment for this article.

Gualtieri said he has considered creating a social media policy, but drafting one is challenging because deputies have the right to free speech. Some posts could violate other general orders that would warrant discipline.

"You have to balance their rights to express themselves," said the sheriff, who has a law degree, "but at the same time, if there is something problematic and there's evidence of a certain notion or a position of something that's wrong, then we're going to have to address it."

At the St. Petersburg Police Department, social media use falls under the agency's rules of conduct, which state that officers should not post photos or comments that reflect negatively on the agency or themselves.

Last year, local advocates of immigrants began receiving complaints from residents of the Southern Comfort Mobile Home Park about deputies in the area.

Before being promoted to the narcotics unit, Swetokos, 48, patrolled near the park at 24479 U.S. 19 N from July 2013 through March. During that same period, dozens of residents said they often were stopped and arrested for driving without a valid license.

Traffic records show that Swetokos cited and arrested far more Hispanics, many of them from Southern Comfort, than most other deputies in his squad. During his time in Squad 7, Swetokos cited about 37 Hispanics, while most other deputies cited one to eight, according to records.

"I had never been in jail before," said Francisco Garcia Martinez, who was stopped and arrested by Swetokos for driving without a valid license in November. "Before, they (deputies) would see you and not stop you. But lately they see you and follow you around like alligators."

After learning of the allegations from a Times reporter, Gualtieri said Swetokos likely spent a lot of time at Southern Comfort because of ongoing issues at the park, including disturbances and assaults. The Sheriff's Office received about 150 calls for service there within a year.

"It's irrelevant as to the fact that they're Hispanic," the sheriff said. "They're people that are living in an area that we're having problems with."

Still, Gualtieri said he will likely visit the park to talk to residents and address their concerns.

"If we can determine that there is something, by all means I'll investigate it," he said. "I don't want them to have the perception that there is anybody that is being picked on or targeted."

Times staff researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Contact Laura C. Morel at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157. Follow @lauracmorel.

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