Police chief in Michigan suspended for social media comments

The Shelby Township trustees suspended police Chief Robert Shelide for 30 days Tuesday night and ordered him to undergo cultural awareness and de-escalation training but stopped short of firing him for inflammatory comments he made online about Black Lives Matter protesters.

Before the board’s 5-2 vote, Shelide pleaded for his job, saying he wrote the statements after seeing property damaged and police attacked during protests over the death of George Floyd. He told the trustees, “I am not a racist.”

“I bleed blue. I’ve been doing this job since I was a kid,” he said after the board heard more than three hours of public comments about whether he should stay or go. “This isn’t a job for me. This is a calling.”

The board voted to discipline Shelide, a 34-year law enforcement veteran, after hearing more than three hours of comments from residents and people from out of town about whether the chief should be fired.

Many of those who called in to the board’s remote meeting urged the board to remove Shelide, though some participants said his long service and expertise meant he should remain in office.

Some trustees said they were swayed by many calls, emails and conversations with residents who supported the chief.

“Like the silent majority of the township, I believe as Chief said himself, his remarks were directed at the violent agitators and the looters,” Trustee Lisa Casali said before the vote. “Chief Shelide’s comments had nothing to do with race. Chief Shelide is passionate about his job to serve and protect the people of this township.”

Supervisor Richard Stathakis disagreed, saying Shelide failed to uphold the township’s core values and set a poor example that could have broader impact.

“Bad attitudes can negatively affect how police officers deal with lawbreakers, or worse, non-white residents who have done nothing wrong, which creates an adversarial relationship between Shelby Township and its police,” he said.

Stathakis and trustee Vince Viviano voted against suspending Shelide, saying he should be fired instead.

During his remarks, the chief showed a video of violence during protests that have broken out across the country since George Floyd died after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes May 25.

“Watching that video sickened me,” Shelide said, added it led him to make his comments online. He said he supports the right to peaceful protest.

“My comments have been twisted and taken out of context,” he said.

Shelide said he regretted the furor over his comments but added, “I don’t deserve to lose my employment over this. People deserve a second chance.”

The board meeting drew more than 250 people. The trustees put Shelide on paid administrative leave June 4 after the posts came to light, and he issued a statement apologizing for the comments.

The board jumped to public comment quickly, where more than 100 residents and non-residents as far as West Michigan spoke, with many urging trustees vote to remove Shelide, who has been the township’s chief since 2015. He previously worked as a police officer in Detroit and Southfield, and is a past president of the Southeast Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

Katie Medlock, the first to speak during the public comments, said the chief is “unfit for his position, a danger to our township and must be removed immediately. He is an unbelievable threat and that you should take the appropriate and correct action.”

Multiple Shelby Township residents, who did not have their names available on the Zoom conference, said the chief’s actions have shown “true professionalism” and that he is not a racist.

“You have a champion as your police chief,” Neal Brand, an attorney, told the board.

The majority of the people who urged the chief’s removal were from outside the township and almost all who advocated on behalf of the chief were from Shelby Township.

His supporters said the chief has a right to free speech, that his comments were a lapse in judgment, and called on protesters to turn their attention to their own cities.

Before the vote, some residents said keeping Shelide in his position sent the wrong message.

“It tells me that you condone police brutality because it has been vocalized by the highest member” of the police department, Jamie Haugen told trustees.

Justin Mann, an African-American man who has lived in the township for 18 years and has spoken out about the chief, said he was disappointed in the board’s decision to suspend Shelide, not terminate him.

“I was hoping that now would be the time I finally saw change in the community I grew up in,” he said. “Being a victim to my community countless times made me really want to see appropriate action taken regarding Shelide’s statements. But what really disgusted me was the committee’s remarks as most of them defended our chief of police.”

He added, “They had to nerve to give a lousy moment of silence for George Floyd that was maybe 10 seconds. They broke protocol for the meeting and allowed Shelide to speak when he already made a statement in private after the previous meeting. He got to make a whole presentation to defend his hate speech and I, a black man who lived here for 18 years, got three minutes to speak.”

Among charges the board considered is whether Shelide may have acted unprofessionally and violated either his oath of office, job description or township code of ethics in making the remarks under a secret Twitter identity, “Sheepdawg.”

In one comment, Shelide agreed with President Donald Trump that military action should be used to deal with rowdy protests and tweeted to the Brooklyn district attorney: “Shutup you libtard. Go bury your head.”

More than 600 people signed an online petition calling for the chief’s removal.

Shelide, in a statement provided to The News last week, expressed remorse for making the comments.

“While an apology is insufficient and an insult to the gravity of my comments, I humbly and respectfully ask for the courtesy of forgiveness to those I have offended, to my department and more importantly to those I am sworn to serve,” he said.

“My record speaks to the commitment and professionalism that I have exhibited for more than 30 years without incident, both of which were compromised by my emotion,” he said. “During my administrative leave issued by the department, I will fully cooperate with the investigation, and seek the support and counsel necessary to ensure that my behavior and comments going forward more accurately reflect my character and person.”

Daniel Vanlacken said the chief is well respected within the department and that he was only commenting on “criminals and the behavior that was displayed.”

“It’s disgusting that people are twisting this to fit their own agenda,” Vanlacken said during public comments. “He knows he shouldn’t have done it and we know he won’t do it again. It’ll only strive to make him a better chief for our city. I hope that you’ll make the right decision to retain him and do what’s best for our (township), not the political climate.”

Nicole Card a lifelong resident of Shelby Township, said there’s no question the chief should be fired and not just disciplined.

“His overall online conduct has been harmful to the community,” Card said. “It’s a chronic issue, not a lapse in judgment. He claims his own words do not adequately represent his actions and thinks his 30-year record will keep him safe.

“It does not matter if he serves some well. He should serve everyone. It’s clear that he can’t.

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