UPDATED: Salem police officer demoted, suspended over tweet

JAIME CAMPOS/Staff photoDemonstrators kneel holding their signs during a protest at the Salem Police Department calling for the removal of Capt. Kate Stephens after a Tweet surfaced criticizing Gov. Charlie Baker and Mayor Marty Walsh for permitting a large protest in Boston May 31, over the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police.

SALEM — The Salem police captain who used the department’s official Twitter account to post a comment comparing protests over the killing of George Floyd to dining out has been demoted two ranks, to sergeant.

Kate Stephens faces several other disciplinary measures, including a 30-day suspension without pay, with half of that suspension being held in abeyance, Salem police Chief Mary Butler confirmed Wednesday afternoon.

Stephens also wrote a letter of apology to the community, which Butler released Wednesday morning. 

“I absolutely believe and will defend everyone’s right to peacefully protest and exercise their First Amendment rights,” said Stephens in her written apology. “I am so sorry for this mistake.”

Stephens said her post was intended for her personal account, and was an expression of frustration about COVID-19 restrictions. However, she acknowledged that, “Even on my personal Twitter account this message would have been inappropriate.”

She said she did not intend the post to denigrate protesters.

But the tweet was viewed that way by many, including the chief. Butler said the post was derisive and undermined the public’s confidence in police. 

The June 1 Tweet came hours after a large protest in Boston in reaction to the killing of Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. That officer, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with second degree murder and two other officers were charged as accessories. 

“(S)o you issued a permit for 10 of thousands of people to protest but I can’t go to a restaurant? You are ridiculous. You and Too Tall Deval are killing this State,” the tweet read.   

“Too Tall Deval” is a reference to Gov. Charlie Baker, used by conservative commentators to compare the moderate Baker with his more liberal predecessor, Deval Patrick, a Black man. The tweet was addressed to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. 

Stephens quickly deleted the tweet when she realized it had been posted on the department’s official page, but it had already been viewed by a number of people, including at least one person who took a “screenshot” of it. Stephens had also brought the tweet to the attention of Butler. 

In the days after the incident, protests were organized calling for Stephens to be fired, the first outside the police station on Margin Street and another on Salem Common. Organizers of those protests could not be reached on Wednesday. 

The demotion to sergeant will cost Stephens 20% of her base salary. 

Butler said the demotion by two ranks is the first in the department’s recent history. Stephens agreed not to appeal the discipline and has also assented to a “last chance” agreement.

She has also been replaced as the department’s executive officer, will have no role and command and policy oversight and authority, and no longer has access to the department’s social media accounts. 

“While this is the first such incident in her record, Stephens has acknowledged that her conduct was inconsistent with her responsibilities as a Captain of the Salem Police Department,” said Butler in a press release announcing the decision.

Stephens has also agreed to work on repairing her relationship with the community through in-person meetings and with taking part in additional training, said the chief.

“As police officers, we are — rightly — held to a higher standard of conduct,” said Butler. “Sgt. Stephens’ words undermined confidence in not just her, but in the entire department. The men and women of the Salem Police Department are committed to rebuilding trust between the department and every member of the community whom we serve and protect.

“Sgt. Stephens’ opinion was not the opinion of the department, nor is it reflective of the core value policing, as every resident has the freedom to exercise their rights free of antagonism, most especially from the government itself, but even more importantly, to be heard,” said the chief.

Stephens said in her letter of apology that she has accepted the discipline imposed by Butler and takes “full responsibility for the unintended consequences of my mistake.” 

“The Salem Police Superior Officers Association acknowledges the negative impact the tweet caused with members of our community,” said Lt. David M. Tucker, president of the union. “We also recognize that action needed to be taken to restore confidence of the community in the police department.”

Tucker said the union was pleased that Stephens was able to stay with the department, citing other achievements by Stephens, but also acknowledged that the tweet “diminished those in our community who were voicing the need for change.” 

Frank Robinson, who led a protest last weekend on Salem Common, called the decision to demote Stephens “appropriate,” though he knows many were calling for her firing.

“My hope is that this promotes a culture of accountability within the department, and not only when so many people are watching.”

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, jmanganis@gloucestertimes.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis. 

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