With Youngkin and Miyares, both Republicans, assuming their offices as governor and attorney general this weekend, they must end local officials’ political persecution of police officers.
Increasingly, local leaders are scapegoating police officers in a growing and disturbing trend. In Portsmouth, the city fired Police Chief Angela Greene, the city’s first African American woman chief. Her supposed offense? Enforcing the law by lodging charges against alleged vandals, including a state senator whose sister sits on the city council. (My organization is aiding Greene in her wrongful termination suit.)
In Norfolk, city officials believe their employees have a right to their opinions — if they are the right ones. So, in April, they fired 19-year police veteran Lt. William K. Kelly for his supposed violation of "city and departmental policies [and] egregious comments [that] erode the trust” between the police and public.
Those “egregious” remarks and actions? Kelly gave $25 to the legal defense fund of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two individuals who attacked him during the August 2020 riot in Kenosha, Wis.
The city had knowledge of Kelly’s private (and legal) donation and post only through an illegal act (hacking) intended to “dox” the political opponents of the hackers. Its decision to terminate him on evidence obtained and weaponized by political opponents is troubling and only encourages future attacks on Americans for their views.
The hackers wanted to silence public (or private) support for Rittenhouse. Norfolk City Manager Chip Filer, under pressure from the city council, dutifully complied.
Though Norfolk’s firing of Kelly might have been politically expedient, it wasn’t legal or right. Youngkin and Miyares should intervene.
When police officers don their uniforms, they are expected to protect and serve everyone — equally with equanimity. Society rightly expects them to do their duty without bias, agenda or allegiances except to the law, justice and public safety.
Police officers are citizens of this great republic, too, and retain their constitutional rights to vote, to believe, to think and to speak freely. In their capacity as law enforcement, those expressions are allowed in their private capacity — off-duty and as individual citizens.
Kelly’s right as a private citizen to contribute to a political or charitable cause is enshrined in the Constitution and Virginia code and is expressly allowed by the city of Norfolk’s code of ethics.
Virginia law specifically states that municipalities cannot prohibit off-duty law enforcement officers from “expressing opinions, privately or publicly, on political subjects and candidates” and making contributions to the same.
The city’s complaint claiming that Kelly’s donation supported Rittenhouse, who “was acting in conjunction with an armed militia and was acting in violation of the law,” is belied by the facts and, now, the findings of a court of law. Rittenhouse was not part of a militia, and he was acquitted of all criminal charges by a jury.
And the Supreme Court has upheld government employees’ right to speak freely on matters of “public concern” when doing so as a private citizen. Kelly’s anonymous donation did not identify him as a Norfolk officer or undermine the city of Norfolk or any city leader or policy.
The city also violated Kelly’s due process protections afforded by law by terminating his employment before he was presented with the charges and allowed time to respond.
Norfolk must reinstate Kelly because it’s the right thing to do and it’s the law. If the city doesn’t, the governor should cut off state funds and the attorney general should sue the city for breaching the commonwealth’s laws.
More than kind words, law enforcement also needs leaders to stand up for their rights as citizens.