Criminal justice prof says officers should be exceedingly cautious on social media
JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Whether or not a local off-duty sheriff’s lieutenant crossed a line of police ethics while participating in the Jan. 6 protests at the U.S. Capitol, his now-deleted Facebook posts about his time there were at the least ill-advised, a local criminal justice professor told News Channel 11.
The firsthand account
It was 6:05 p.m. Jan. 6 when Lt. Dan Kneaskern posted a Facebook message “at United States Capitol.”
The veteran law enforcement officer had a lot to say in the message, in which he described part of what he had seen and done during the protest he described as a “Save America march to the Capitol.”
At one point in the message — since removed from Kneaskern’s Facebook page along with all other indications of his participation in the protests — Kneaskern describes an encounter “with a female officer in riot gear.”
“I was pepper sprayed while standing with my hands up” speaking to the officer, Kneaskern wrote.
He wrote that after being “struck on the wrist with a baton” he “pulled my badge out and walked the line with eyes full of pepper spray in front of officers and reminded them of their oath.
“I was defending the constitution, and reminded them they were stomping on it.”
Kneaskern described how the authorities’ “line broke” shortly after his interaction with officers and said there was no violence by the crowd who, according to him, “only wanted to climb the steps.”
Prior to that portion of his account, Kneaskern described what he called “secret service” blocking off the grounds in front of the Capitol and barricading access to the Capitol steps.
“Patriots took down the temporary plastic fences, used barricades as ladders to climb the wall to make it. to the foot of the steps to where their voices could be heard,” Kneaskern wrote.
He described people “from all walks of life” being pepper sprayed and hit with batons.
“This infuriated the masses and they pushed through and made it up the stairs,” Kneaskern wrote. “The crowd sang God Bless America and the National Anthem. Not fake news. I was there.
“I was on the front line.”
‘Held to a higher standard’
Kneaskern, who didn’t respond to interview requests, described several things that Northeast State Community College professor Eric Stanton said at least raise questions about whether he crossed the bounds of his First Amendment right to peaceful protest and assembly.
Stanton’s assessment came after hearing detail about Kneaskern’s Facebook post.
That description, Stanton said, does raise questions. He said according to police “force continuum” protocols “officers can’t pepper spray people just to pepper spray, they have to have a reason in that force continuum to do so.”
Stanton was quick to mention Northeast’s strong relationship with the Carter County Sheriff’s Office, his respect for Sheriff Dexter Lunceford and his assumption that Kneaskern is a high-quality officer.
But aside from the unprovable — what occurred in D.C. — he said the episode underscores how important it is for law enforcement officers and others in public service to be cautious about social media.
“I would just encourage any administrator out there that’s over these departments to at least have that talk with their officers or deputies to let them know that ‘hey, especially on a social media these things can get out of hand in a hurry,’” Stanton said.
As to a situation like Kneaskern’s, Stanton said in a supervisory role he would at least investigate.
“If not discipline the officer, at least talk to him or her … about how what they put out on texts or what they put out on social media can have negative connotations on the department.”
Asked Jan. 8 whether his office was considering looking into whether any of Kneaskern’s actions in Washington may have crossed the bounds of peaceful protest, Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford replied through CCSO spokesperson Thomas Gray.
“The sheriff will not be commenting on what Lt. Kneaskern does on his personal time,” Gray wrote.
Tuesday, Gray said Lunceford had interviewed Kneaskern about the off-duty visit to D.C., and that Kneaskern’s status with the department had not changed.
Stanton said the specifics of the message do raise questions in light of longstanding police ethics standards dating back to the early 19th century.
Those reforms set a higher standard for police officers, including an expectation that they are non-partisan.
That said, Stanton acknowledged police like all Americans “have the first amendment right to peaceful assembly and peaceful protest.”
The references to Kneaskern being pepper sprayed and flashing his badge are troubling but inconclusive, Stanton said.
“To me if he is being pepper sprayed it sounds like he is intruding into an area where he shouldn’t be.”
More important, Stanton said, is the issue of perception. Police are bound to serve and protect people regardless of political affiliations, race, sexual orientation and a host of other factors, he said.
“Where law enforcement officers get themselves into trouble is when they’re perceived to be biased,” Stanton said.
Despite Carter County being dominantly conservative politically, Stanton said, “you might have a few individuals over there who could find this offensive and then could question whether or not the sheriff’s office is truly looking out for their interests as well as the interests of their other population.
“Perception can get around and perception can absolutely ruin a department.”
He said he’s confident Kneaskern didn’t want to reflect negatively on his department and that he’s been a fine officer, but added that the higher standard is akin to that of a clergy member.
“You’re expected to serve and protect everybody in your community irregardless of who they voted for or who they didn’t vote for.”
Protest peacefully and post with caution
Stanton said one of his students went to the Jan. 6 protests and showed him some photos from the event. The student described a largely peaceful protest with “a few agitators that were causing what we ended up seeing.
“When he saw it getting out of hand he left. And I think that’s the (for law enforcement). When you’re part of these things and you’re peaceful protesting if they start getting out of hand maybe it’s time for you to leave.”
Stanton said he thinks Kneaskern’s removal of the Facebook posts was the right thing to do. He added that some of the law enforcement reforms being implemented by Gov. Bill Lee’s administration appear set to address issues like this one.
“One of the things our law enforcement agencies are going to be getting during initial basic police recruit school and others is an extended block of instruction on ethics and on stuff of this nature.”