McHugh: No discipline for deputy prosecutor

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COEUR d'ALENE — Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh said education, not punishment, is his answer to questionable social media comments made by a deputy prosecutor.

Last week, Deputy Prosecutor Bryant Bushling wrote a comment in response to a meme posted on Facebook by Kootenai County Bailiff Todd Hartman. Bushling’s comment suggested genocide would occur if police stopped patrolling black neighborhoods.

McHugh said Monday he has discussed the matter with Bushling, as well as Chief Deputy Prosecutor Barry Black and Criminal Chief Prosecutor Art Verharen.

"I know Mr. Bushling regrets the wording of the posts — we support law enforcement’s obligation to protect all citizens," McHugh said. "I take very seriously our duty to make decisions without reference to inappropriate bias. We have communicated that obligation to the deputy prosecutors."

Internet memes are images and text designed to be shared online. The meme in question shows a photo of a white police officer and has text that states, "if we really wanted you dead all we'd have to do is stop patrolling your neighborhood...and wait." In a response that was later edited, Bushling wrote the following:

"Great point. Where the police are under attack from politicians, and the police become less aggressive, the murder rates go up. I say, let them have their neighborhoods. They will be like Rwanda in a matter of weeks."

Bushling's edited comment then refers to his years of service as a prosecuting attorney focusing on gang activity in Los Angeles.

McHugh encouraged anyone who has "negative perceptions" about the posts to contact him directly at (208) 446-1800.

"Over the time Bryant Bushling has worked in this office, I have had many hundreds of conversations with him about evaluating criminal cases, charging criminal cases, resolving those cases, and making recommendations at sentencing," McHugh said. "Not once have I questioned his use of appropriate factors in making decisions. He is a rational, fair and highly ethical attorney with a distinguished career of over 30 years as a prosecuting attorney. The posts will have no impact on his continuing ability to provide excellent service to Kootenai County."

A part of his communication with all of the employees in his office, McHugh added, is continuing education and emphasis on the importance of appropriate communication so the community has confidence in their work.

COUNTY’S POLICY

While Kootenai County employees are free to express themselves as private citizens, the county’s formal social media policy warns employees to assume their activity on social media sites will reflect on the county.

Kootenai County’s policy regarding social media practices includes 16 guidelines, which apply to every county employee. The policy states that the county “respects the right of employees to write blogs and use social networking sites and does not want to discourage employees from self-publishing and self-expression.”

Employees are not allowed, according to the policy, to use county-owned computers, company-licensed software or other electronic equipment for personal blogging or social networking, unless the use is authorized by an elected official or department head. They are also warned speech relating to their specific duties is not protected under the First Amendment and “may form the basis for discipline if deemed detrimental to the county.”

Skye Reynolds, human resources director for Kootenai County, said it’s difficult to say what action would be taken if a policy is violated because the county handles situations on a case-by-case basis. She added the county's discipline policy states “Kootenai County is an at-will employer, and the following actions may be taken in response to personnel policy violations: oral warning, written warning, suspension without pay, demotion, dismissal or other action as deemed appropriate.”

BANNED BIASES

The social media policy goes on to state that employees cannot post anything showing bias against race, religion or any protected class of individuals. In addition, employees are not allowed to post any sexually explicit material, or anything false about the county or any of its elected officials, employees, customers or suppliers.

Employees are also cautioned in the policy about acts of libel and defamation of character that can lead to civil litigation.

The policy also “suggests” employees do not disclose their employment with the county for safety and security reasons. But, if they choose to do so they are asked to include a disclaimer, such as “The views expressed on this (blog, website) are my own and do not reflect the opinions of Kootenai County.”

“Employees are solely responsible for what they post online," the policy states. "Before creating online content, or commenting on other sites, employees should consider some of the risks that are involved.”

•••

Staff writer Mary Malone contributed to this story.

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