The 411 on Ohio 5-0 and 420
Nov. 12, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Captain Michael Reinheimer of the Vermilion, Ohio Police Department was suspended after wearing a pin on his uniform shirt supporting the legalization of marijuana. This happened as he was conducting a police auction for old equipment, for which we can all be thankful. If the auction had been for assets seized from marijuana offenders, the irony overload might have broken the Internet.
The pin didn’t do much good, as the proposal lost by 30 points. Nevertheless, Captain Reinheimer was placed on paid leave and referred to the city disciplinary process. This might result in his discharge from the force. Quoth the chief of his department, Chris Hartung:
Hartung said he doesn’t have a problem with Reinheimer advocating for legal marijuana on his own time, but by putting the pin on his uniform, he created the impression that he was using his status as a police officer to push his political beliefs.
“You can advocate for whatever political cause you want,” Hartung said. “But you cannot advocate through our office.”
This seems like an overreaction. Is Reinheimer really going to get fired for wearing a pin? Hopefully not, but the department policy forbidding him to do is spot on. Here’s why.
It has nothing to do with marijuana as such. This is one of those cases where there really is a slippery slope, and there’s a giant rabbit hole at the end of it that the Vermilion Police Department doesn’t want to fall into.
Allow one officer to express his political views on duty, and you have to allow all officers to do the same. Some of those views are going to be controversial. And some of those controversial views are going to make it harder for police officers to do their job; or worse, undermine public confidence in the police department.
Suppose Reinheimer actually had to bust someone for pot (unlikely, considering he’s a captain, but still). The department would look pretty silly. That’s not the worst case scenario. What if an officer wearing a “Trump 2016” pin stopped a car driven by a Hispanic? Could the citizens of Anniston, Alabama really be confident in their police department if either of these guys were involved in the shooting of a black suspect?
And then there’s the free speech of Police Officer Bobby Kinch, who seemed to not care for a broad spectrum of people:
“Let’s just get this over!” Kinch wrote in one post. “Race war, Civil, Revolution? Bring it! I’m about as fed up as a man (American, Christian, White, Heterosexual) can get!”
Would a pin on his uniform shirt be sufficient to convey his message, or would he need a white hood as well?
The law on free speech by public employees has a long and interesting history. At first, the law tended to follow Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famous maxim,
The petitioner may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.
The U.S. Supreme Court changed that in 1968 by establishing the so-called Pickering test. The Pickering test was refined in a number of other cases since then, but its basic objective is to balance a public employee’s First Amendment rights against the employer’s interest in having an efficient workplace. The most important feature in these cases, though, is that most of them involved “off-duty” conduct, whether writing letters to the editor, private conversations with other employees, or testifying before a legislative body.
The difference here is that Reinheimer was definitely on duty. More than that, he took a picture of the pin right above his badge. Worst of all, that picture got loose on the internet. At that point, it really does look like a police officer (and a high-ranking one at that) is relying on his position as a police officer to advocate for his political beliefs. That’s where Reinheimer stepped over the line.
That said, it’s encouraging that even law enforcement professionals are coming around to the idea that the War on Drugs is an epic fail. Reinheimer’s attitude is based partially on personal experience, in that his wife suffers from epilepsy and he feels that marijuana might be more effective than her current medication. His view was further influenced by Colorado’s and Washington’s relatively easy transition after their legalizations. Reason and evidence: it’s good to see that they haven’t gone completely out of style.
Even though it was wrong, wearing a pin for a few hours shouldn’t be a firing offense. Unfortunately, he was suspended for 10 days without pay earlier this year when he had some problems with his driver’s license. The deputy that pulled him over got in trouble also, because he admitted that he “more than likely” would have ticketed, as opposed to verbally warned, a suspended driver who did not have the good fortune to be a police captain. The favoritism shown there is a much more serious issue than the pin, but that’s a post for another day.
Here’s hoping Captain Reinheimer doesn’t lose his job over this. We need more cops like him. But no more pins, no matter how much we agree with the message. And definitely no hoods.