Tommy McClay is the Denver police officer who was fired two days after writing, “Let’s start a riot” on his personal Instagram account. McClay’s post included a photo of himself and two other officers wearing tactical gear.
McClay shared the photo on May 31, prompting an internal investigation. He was terminated on June 2. The photo has since been removed from Instagram and McClay has either suspended or deleted his account.
Heavy has reached out to McClay via email for comment. We have not yet heard back.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. McClay Posted the Instagram Message On the Same Night Denver Police Used Tear Gas & Foam Bullets Against Crowds That Had Violated Curfew
McClay posted the photo with his fellow officers on Sunday, May 31. It is unclear what time he shared the image, although the lighting suggests it was snapped during daylight hours.
Demonstrations in Denver on Sunday were peaceful throughout the day as crowds gathered to protest against the death of George Floyd and police brutality. The Denver Post reported crowds were calm as participants gave speeches and played music. But the atmosphere shifted after 8 p.m., which was when the citywide curfew took effect.
Police fired projectiles, such as foam bullets, and used tear gas to disperse the crowds that continued to protest after dark in violation of the curfew. KUSA-TV reported that around 9 p.m., a group of protesters set up a barricade against police officers. The network also reported that fireworks were thrown at police.
According to Fox Denver, 170 people were arrested on Sunday for charges including criminal mischief, arson, assaulting a peace officer and curfew violations.
2. The Denver Police Union Described McClay’s Post as “Inflammatory’ & ‘Misguided’
The Denver Police shared on June 1 that it had opened an internal affairs investigation after the department was alerted to McClay’s Instagram post featuring three officers “posing in riot gear.” The following day, the department identified McClay by name and announced that he had been stripped of his badge.
McClay’s firing was quick because of his probationary status, city officials told CBS Denver. The Denver Police Protective Association praised the department’s decision and released this statement about McClay’s termination:
Today a young, probationary Denver Police officer was terminated for posting an inflammatory, insensitive, and quite frankly, misguided photograph on social media. Chief Pazen swiftly used his power to remove this one officer from the Department. For the other 1,600 Denver Police officers who are left dealing with a very difficult situation, we ask the public, as well as elected City officials, to stop using social media to fan the flames of hatred. It is time to end utilizing social media as a tool to divide. It is time to sit down and talk face to face. The PPA is committed to helping our City begin to heal. 140 characters can only be used to talk about a problem. Conversation is the only way to address a solution.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock also praised the decision to fire McClay. He wrote on Twitter, “I support Chief Pazen’s decision and regret this occurred at a moment in time when we must all bring out the very best of ourselves to meet the challenges before us. Thank you to the officers who are working to keep us all safe during this very difficult time.”
Heavy has reached out to the police union and the Denver Police Department to enquire as to whether McClay had any prior violations on his record.
3. McClay Graduated From the Police Academy In October 2019
McClay was in his first year as an officer with the Denver Police Department. The organization included McClay’s name on a list of recruits that graduated from the police academy in October 2019. Denver Police posted on Facebook at the time:
Last Friday, the Denver Police Department added 48 new officers to its ranks. The Denver Police Class of 2019-2 have successfully completed the academy phase of their training and will now take to the streets for field training. Join us in congratulating these brand new officers on their graduation and wishing them luck on the next phase of this journey!
A search of online records suggests McClay was from Thornton, which is a municipality located about 10 miles northeast of downtown Denver.
4. McClay Was Found to Have Violated the Department’s Social Media Policy
The specific reasoning for McClay’s firing was that he violated the Denver police department’s social media policy. As government employees, police officers are cautioned that statements made to personal accounts are a reflection of the department.
Public employees occupy a trusted position in the community, and thus, their statements have the potential to contravene the policies and performance of this department. Due to the nature of the work and influence associated with the law enforcement profession, it is necessary that employees of this department be subject to certain reasonable limitations on their speech and expression. To achieve its mission and efficiently provide service to the public, the Denver Police Department will carefully balance the individual employee’s rights against the department’s needs and interests when exercising a reasonable degree of control over its employees’ speech and expression.
Police officers are prohibited from posting messages or photos that could interfere with their official duties:
1. Department personnel are free to express themselves as private citizens on social media sites to the degree that their speech and expression does not impair working relationships of this department for which loyalty and confidentiality are important, impede the performance of duties, impair harmony among coworkers, adversely impact the disciplinary process, or cause disruption to the department, or to any other city agency.
2. As public employees, department personnel are cautioned that speech, on- or off-duty, made pursuant to their official duties – that is, that owes its existence to the employee’s professional duties and responsibilities – is not protected speech under the First Amendment and may form the basis for discipline. Department personnel should assume that their speech and expression, and related activity on social media sites will reflect upon their official capacity and this department.
The operations manual also warns that city employees should “forfeit any expectation of privacy” online due to the evolving nature of privacy settings on social media platforms. Police officers are also advised against their employment with the department for security reasons.
5. The Other Two Officers In the Photo Have Been Pulled From Patrolling Protests
The Denver Police have not identified the other two officers in McClay’s photo. It’s unclear whether they were aware McClay was going to write “Let’s start a riot” or share the picture on social media. According to the Denver Channel, both of those officers were reassigned. Neither of them will patrol protests going forward.
Meanwhile, the department is looking ahead to try to improve communication between police and the community. The department is hosting a virtual town hall on June 3 beginning at 6 p.m. Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen will be available to answer questions and hear from community members about what they’d like to see change in the city. The meeting can be joined here.