AP NEWS

Ex-Houston-area deputy’s firing upheld after racist posts surface

April 10, 2019 GMT

A Harris County board on Tuesday upheld the firing of a sheriff’s office deputy who shared two racist posts on a private Facebook group called the “White Privilege Club.”

The sheriff’s office terminated former Det. James Thomas’ employment this year after investigating his behavior on social media, stemming from a letter from an investigative reporting group detailing the accusations, Assistant County Attorney Graylon Wells said.

After two investigations into the matter, the Sheriff Ed Gonzalez denied a first appeal for reinstatement, and the Sheriff’s Civil Service Commission on Tuesday ruled in line with the agency’s head.

“Nobody forced James Thomas to make those posts,” Wells said at the hearing. “James Thomas made decisions, he made actions and it’s a learning lesson for him. But that shouldn’t be forced on the sheriff. He can learn his lesson and go somewhere else.”

During the appeals hearing, Thomas and his attorney pointed to the perils and ever-changing nature of social media while denying that the posts were outwardly racist. Wells countered that Thomas shouldn’t be reinstated because his behavior online broke department policies of professionalism.

Bob Thomas, general counsel of the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, also questioned how the issue came to light. A reporter who works for “Reveal,” a nonprofit news organization through the Center for Investigative Reporting, sent a letter in December 2018 with his findings to Gonzalez.

“I don’t think this man’s career should be destroyed because some reporter or some person with a political agenda is trying to destroy the credibility of law enforcement in the community,” Bob Thomas said.

Thomas, who joined the department in 2008, said he first became associated with the Facebook group in June 2017, when he went to the page to find out more about an incident when the group’s administrator allegedly drove a motorcycle through a crowd in San Francisco protesting a GOP-backed health care bill.

The ex detective said he clicked “like” on an article posted on the White Privilege Club page. He inadvertently became a member of the group when it changed its privacy settings from a community, or public, group to a private one, he said.

Bob Thomas said his client didn’t know he was posting in a closed group. The page apparently got more racist when the privacy settings changed, he said.

A Facebook user named “JT Thomas,” who had photos on his personal page that were associated with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, shared his first post on the White Privilege Club in August 2017. It read, “Seriously, why,” with an attached photo of the Black College Football Hall of Fame emblem, Wells said. Thomas, the former deputy, said thet post was to stimulate debate, because he doesn’t feel there should be any segregation in sports.

The second post just a month later said, “In keeping with the chicken theme,” attached to a picture of a black woman. The picture had text on it that read, “A reporter asked a lady how many churches had their doors open during the storm. She said she didn’t know, she eats at Popeyes,” according to Wells.

The second post was during Hurricane Harvey. Thomas said he thought it was funny because of the pun and that one of the first restaurants to open near his home after the hurricane was a Popeyes.

Wells said that the post referenced a stereotype that black people like chicken.

“I don’t see this as racist,” Thomas said.

Thomas “unfollowed” the group at some point, meaning posts to the group didn’t appear on his Facebook timeline on a day-to-day basis, he said. He didn’t completely remove himself from the group, however, because he was still a member when he was approached by sheriff’s office personnel investigating the posts.

Thomas, the attorney, said he and his client disagree with the commission’s decision, but that he knows it would be a difficult case to appeal.

The commission is made up of three members who hear appeals to guarantee fair treatment of sheriff’s office employees and former employees.

samantha.ketterer@chron.com

Twitter.com/sam_kett

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