Court backs firing of N.J. prison officer for derogatory post about George Floyd

The ex-officer also posted a photo of protestors lying on a street and wrote, “I would run them over no problem lol (laughing tears of joy emoji) didn’t see it"

By Kevin Shea

CLINTON, N.J. — A state appeals court on Thursday upheld the firing of a state Department of Corrections officer who made several online posts that were derogatory about race, the Black Lives Matter movement, and George Floyd, the man killed by police in Minneapolis in 2020.

Samantha Chirichello was a corrections officer from June 2019 until December 2020 and worked at Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women in Hunterdon County.

The corrections department investigated her for her online posts after being tipped by a member of the public, the appeals decision says.

They included a post that listed George Floyd’s supposed criminal record, and said he’d served time for robbing a pregnant woman. The post read: “WHEN HE WAS KILLED, HE WAS HIGH ON METH GETTING READY TO DRIVE A CAR AND POSSIBLY KILL YOUR KID. TOO BAD THE PREGNANT WOMAN DIDN’T HAVE A GUN.”

(Experts testified that Floyd was high when he was killed, but that drugs were not responsible for his death. Former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murder in his death. Floyd had a criminal record that included a 2007 armed robbery. Reports have debunked some inaccurate details about the robbery that circulated on social media.)

In another social media post, Chirichello posted a photo of protestors lying on a street and wrote, “I would run them over no problem lol (laughing tears of joy emoji) didn’t see it.” On Instagram, Chirichello posted a picture of herself in her police uniform, posing next to graffiti stating, “Black Lives Matter,” with “sike” underneath the slogan. The caption stated: “If you are testing my water, you better know how to swim.”

And she wrote in a post, “If the police are going to be defunded, so should welfare, food stamps, and free medical care. If you don’t need police, you can take care of yourself on every level.”

Corrections officials charged her with several internal violations, including conduct unbecoming of a public employee, and suspended her. The case went to the state’s Office of Administrative Law, OAL, which sustained the charges and recommended a 180-day suspension, the appeals decision explains.

The OAL judge said Chirichello was young and at the beginning of her career when she “made a severe misstep and exercised extremely poor judgment in an area where she received little to no training or guidance and policy had not yet caught up to the behavior despite it...having been a simmering and burgeoning issue in the area.”

That decision went to the state’s Civil Service Commission (CSC) which upheld the OAL decision, but not the punishment. It opted for termination.

The CSC found Chirichello’s conduct egregious. She did not merely “like” one offensive post, but reposted and made many offensive and inflammatory comments, including one with confederate flag imagery on public Facebook page, the decision says.

Moreover, the CSC ruled, Chirichello was a short-term employee and if she’d had a lengthy and relatively unblemished record of service, the suspension may have been considered. “However, that is not the facts of this matter.”

Chirichello’s lawyer appealed that decision to Superior Court’s appellate division, arguing several points, including that the DOC erred in disciplining Chirichello and the OAL and CSC made errors in the punishment and she had no prior discipline.

Two appeals judges disagreed, and said they would not upset the CSC’s decision.

They wrote that Chirichello’s firing does not shock their sense of fairness, and the CSC was within its rights to conclude the officer’s conduct could adversely affect prison safety and undermine the public respect in the services the DOC provides.

The judges also agreed that Chirichello’s lack of a disciplinary history is likely due to her short tenure, and concluded: “Appellant’s social media activity was not a one-off; she made several public posts on different platforms bearing racially insensitive and violent undertones.”

Chirichello’s lawyer did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

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McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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