By Alex Ruppenthal
A Medford, Mass. police officer faces potential discipline for sharing a graphic on Facebook that incites violence against Muslims, Wicked Local reported.
Medford Police Chief Leo A. Sacco Jr. said the department is examining a post shared Jan. 9 on the personal profile of Officer Jason Montalbano that contains an image of a mushroom cloud and a reference to the United States’ atomic bombing of Japan in World War II.
Text above the image reads, “JAPAN HAS BEEN AT PEACE WITH THE USA SINCE SEPTEMBER 2, 1945,” referencing the date of Japan’s surrender less than a month after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Below the image reads, “IT’S TIME WE MADE PEACE WITH ISLAM.”
The graphic originated on the Facebook page of Steve Reichert, a retired U.S. Marine and member of the National Rifle Association’s Board of Directors.
After Montalbano shared the image, it received 17 “likes.”
"You can’t be a neutral officer on the street if you have these ideas about a certain group of people,” Mayor Stephanie M. Burke said after learning about the message last week. “So, it’s not acceptable.”
On Monday, Burke notified Sacco about the post, and Sacco asked Medford Police Lt. Joseph Casey to review the message to help determine whether the department would conduct an Internal Affairs investigation.
“The matter is being reviewed right now,” Sacco said. “And if an investigation is warranted, it will begin. But we just got it today.”
As part of the department’s review, Sacco said Casey would meet with Medford Diversity Director Diane McLeod, who learned about the post from Burke last week.
“I was very much taken aback by it,” McLeod said.
Although the post came from Montalbano’s personal Facebook profile, Burke said sharing the message might be considered conduct unbecoming of a police officer, a catch-all charge used by law enforcement agencies to discipline officers.
“I think that they’re held to a higher standard,” Burke said about the city’s police officers. “And conduct unbecoming is conduct unbecoming. I think they have to conduct themselves in a way that’s much higher than an average citizen.
“They’re not supposed to incite,” Burke added. “They’re supposed to calm things down.”
The Facebook page of Medford’s police union, the Medford Police Patrolmen’s Association, includes posts in support of Republican Presidential frontrunner Donald J. Trump who, after the Dec. 2 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., called for the U.S. to bar all Muslims from entering the country until leaders could “figure out what is going on.”
Trump has also urged the U.S. government to monitor mosques and create a database with the names of Muslims living in the country.
“We have an ongoing ‘War on Terror,’” said Shannon Erwin, executive director of Boston-based Muslim Justice League, which advocates for human and civil rights it says are violated or threatened under the pretext of national security, “both domestically and internationally, that tells people it’s OK to treat Muslims with suspect.”
Erwin said she’s seen this particular image posted several times before being asked about it this week.
“As upsetting as hateful speech is, we really believe that counter speech -- speech that expresses people’s reactions and the realities that are happening in our communities -- is important,” she said.
A phone message left for Montalbano at the Medford Police Department had not been returned as of the Transcript’s Tuesday afternoon print deadline.
As of Monday, Montalbano’s profile no longer showed up on Facebook.
Medford Police instituted a social networking policy in January 2014, but the policy mostly covers material that could jeopardize police investigations if shared publicly.
However, the policy states the following purpose: “In order to ensure the optimum level of professional and public confidence in the Medford Police Department, it is absolutely necessary that the integrity of the department remain beyond reproach in any and all circumstances.”
Sacco said he does not monitor officers’ activity on social media.
In addition to the department’s policy, McLeod said she is working with Burke and City Solicitor Mark Rumley to create a citywide policy on social media conduct for employees.
“It’s mainly about being respectful,” McLeod said. “It’s about not using media to hurt anyone.”
The post follows an incident in early February when Medford High School staff and students received criticism for planning an event in conjunction with World Hijab Day, a movement started in 2013 to foster religious tolerance and understanding by inviting non-Muslim women to wear the hijab, a veil covering the hair and neck worn by many Muslim women to reflect a life of modesty.
Administrators postponed the Feb. 1 event, organized by the school’s Arabic Club, determining the school needed to better communicate the concept and purpose to students, parents and community members to facilitate a constructive conversation.
After the incident, Medford’s Human Rights Commission also decided to postpone a scheduled community event March 16 on Muslim and Sikh Awareness.
“When word got out there were several nasty calls and Yahoo emails that were quite derogatory,” commission members wrote in minutes from the group’s Feb. 10 meeting. “[Students] met with [MHS Headmaster] Dr. [John] Perella and the Superintendent [Roy Belson] to discuss this. There are hateful comments that need to be addressed.”
McLeod said members of the commission later met with students from the MHS Arabic Club to express their support.
Hostility toward Muslims has increased since the presidential campaign season kicked into gear last year, said Yusufi Vali, executive director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center.
“I’m hearing a lot more of that kind of stuff from community members than at other times,” said Vali, who runs ISBCC’s mosque in Roxbury, the largest mosque in New England. “And unfortunately, I think a lot of it has to do with the political season.”
ISBCC estimates there are 75,000 to 80,000 Muslims living in Greater Boston, and about 110,000 statewide.
“I know that there are a number of Muslims in Medford,” Vali said, “and I think to the extent that the citizens in Medford can have relationships with Medford Police officers -- I think the critical piece is really to get to know one another.”
Vali said the Facebook post should not be used to cast the entire department in a negative light.
“I think it’s really critical not to judge the Police Department by what one or a few people do, in the same way Islam or Muslims should not be judged by what a very small group of minorities do,” Vali said.
Medford resident Muhammad Chowdhury, a member of the city’s Human Rights Commission, hopes the city and Police Department use the incident to improve relationships between officers and Muslims.
“It can be disturbing for [Muslims] to see this type of message from the law enforcement in our community,” said Chowdhury, who is Muslim. “It’s kind of like a teaching moment for our law enforcement.”
In recent years, Chowdhury said he had proposed a cultural and religious understanding forum for Medford Police officers, in addition to cultural awareness training new officers receive during police academy.
The discussion would allow officers to learn about religions such as Islam and ask questions, Chowdhury said. He planned to revisit the idea with Sacco, Medford’s police chief and also part of the city’s Human Rights Commission.
“I think it would be very helpful if they have a chance to know [the religion] better,” Chowdhury said. “All people should have confidence with law enforcement, that they are protected. Definitely this is kind of a teaching point that we need to do more to prevent even more from happening in the future.”
In Roxbury, members of ISBCC’s Muslim community have developed a rapport with Boston Police, Vali said, adding Boston Police Commissioner William B. Evans has visited the mosque.
“Any time there has been anything worldwide, like San Bernardino or the Paris attacks, the commissioner has reached out to us and said, ‘Do you need any security? I’m concerned about you,’” Vali said. “It’s a really good relationship, because there is a genuine care and sense of responsibility on both sides. They’ve seen how we’re just like any other community.”
Vali said he was not aware of any disparaging social media posts about Muslims from Boston Police officers.
“In Boston, we haven’t encountered anything from the Boston Police Department or any officials,” Vali said. “In fact, we’ve encountered the opposite -- support for the Muslim community. It’s been very heartening.”