Police officers cautious as vitriol spreads online against their profession

Salem police officers have seen both criticism online and acts of kindness from the community in the wake of protests against police violence. (Amanda Loman/ Salem Reporter)

Scotty Nowning felt the lowest about police work in his entire 32-career when he watched the video of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.

“I knew when I saw that it was going to affect every police officer in the United States,” said Nowning, a Salem Police Department detective and president of the police union. “The career field took a real punch in the gut that day.”

At first, he couldn’t come to grips with what was happening, analyzing Chauvin’s actions from his years of police training and wondering why the Minneapolis officer continued to hold his knee to someone who was handcuffed facedown.

In the weeks since the video prompted a global response with protests against police violence erupting around the world, Nowning said the anger has been palpable toward those in his profession.

He said his fellow officers have become more cautious for fear they’ll be painted as racists or white supremacists. Some have become targets of off-duty harassment, like having their home address disclosed online.

When the Salem Reporter requested a chance to talk with some of Salem police’s 190 sworn officers about how current events impact their lives, the Salem Police Department said it couldn’t make any available. A spokesman said officers worried they would face a backlash for publicly speaking.

Nowning stepped up in his union role to give voice to what officers are experiencing. He said some are questioning if they’ve chosen the right career. He expects those eligible for retirement will leave their jobs as soon as they can.

“You’re doing these things and you think ‘I’m doing this for a good noble cause’ and then one instant out of your control changes everyone’s perception of you. It’s hard on people who have devoted their entire life to that and so I understand people’s desire to want move on and do something else,” he said.

Nowning said officers can be vilified online from a snippet of an interaction they have.

“With social media, someone can grab a soundbite of what I say and despite my 50 years of life and my experiences and interactions with my friends and the public, they’ll take what I say and say this person is a racist or this person is a white supremacist. It almost becomes fact,” he said.

The Salem agency came under fire after a video went viral of an officer telling an armed militia group to stay inside a building or in their car to avoid violating the city’s curfew during protests in late May.

Police Chief Jerry Moore in a subsequent internal review singled out the department’s handling of the armed militia. He noted the officer in the video that was widely shared was trying to de-escalate the situation and wasn’t properly briefed on the parameters of the curfew imposed that night. In the review, Moore said de-escalation techniques don’t make someone a white supremacist, a claim that has been made online about Salem police.

The officer caught on video, Sgt. Mike Johnson, has faced significant online harassment.

The department is training five recruits and Nowning told them to stay off social media as they step into a career that will alter their lives significantly. He ventured a guess that every police officer has probably seen their friends sharing something hurtful about police officers online.

But at the same time, people in the community have come up to officers in recent weeks to let them know they appreciate what they’re doing, Nowning said.

Cards and signs of appreciation on the walls of the briefing room at the Salem Police Department. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)    

Groups have brought pies, chocolates and other sweets to show appreciation for Salem officers. The halls of the police station are adorned with messages from the community that say: “thank you” or “we are so proud of you.”

Nowning said he’s started to feel better lately as he’s tried to look at this time as an opportunity for change.

“It’s a work in progress like much of society. Clearly, we need more engagement from persons of color and from underserved communities. This is an eye-opening experience that hopefully we can get that done,” he said. 

Cards and signs of appreciation on the walls of the briefing room at the Salem Police Department. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Nowning’s rank.

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Have a story tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.