Elgin police officers complain about diversity consultant's Facebook posts

 
 
Updated 9/21/2018 7:50 PM
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  • The city of Elgin has put on hold the work of diversity consultant Denise Barreto, shown here, after complaints from police officers about some of her Facebook posts.

      The city of Elgin has put on hold the work of diversity consultant Denise Barreto, shown here, after complaints from police officers about some of her Facebook posts. Elena Ferrarin | Staff Photographer

An Elgin diversity consultant says she now understands why some city employees found some of her personal Facebook posts objectionable.

A Facebook post shared by Denise Barreto that said "If white women tried as hard to eliminate white supremacy as they try to lose weight, white supremacy would be ended" was a focus of police officers' complaints, Mayor David Kaptain said.

Barreto, who was hired last year, said training on unconscious bias she had been conducting this month for city employees was suspended. She met with City Manager Rick Kozal on Friday and said "we are still working through what's problematic."

"I teach that bias isn't good or bad," Barreto said. "Bias is only bad when it harms somebody, and the only way you know that is when people tell you. When people tell you, you have to make adjustments. And that applies to me, too."

Kaptain said the issue had been brewing since last week. He cited the single Facebook post but said he was told there were others that some saw as "biased about race."

Kaptain said the post about women was inappropriate but not a reason to fire Barreto or not renew her contract after it expires in December. Still, effective work can't be done if employees don't trust Barreto, and the decision is up to Kozal, he said.

Police Chief Ana Lalley directed questions to the city manager's office, where spokeswoman Molly Center said the issue "is currently being reviewed."

Other recent posts made by Barreto include a link to a column titled "Colin Kaepernick Was Right About Us" by Christian pastor John Pavlovitz. She posted "Finally #JusticeforJordan" with a link to a news article about a former Texas police officer found guilty in the shooting of unarmed black teenager Jordan Edwards.

Councilwoman Tish Powell said Barreto's diversity and inclusion work is "very important," but it's about exercising good judgment on social media.

"Some employees are concerned about, 'Hey, can I trust this person do to this work?' or may be offended by what she said," Powell said. "That's why we are taking a step back in how do we move forward."

The post about women made a larger point about racism, Councilmember Corey Dixon said. "I could see how people get offended by it, but those who are offended by it maybe also should look at the other half of it and look at the greater point of it."

Anette Beebe, digital committee co-chair for the American Bar Association's forum on communications law, said employers increasingly care about social media posts. When it comes to diversity consulting work, "if you are portraying something that could be, in the eyes of any beholder, not what you are supposed to be portraying, that's arguably hypocritical, and you are going to be judged for that."

An Elgin police officer was fired in 2014 because of Facebook posts with racial connotations. The city said the posts undermined the credibility of Elgin and violated its social media policy; the police union fought that and an arbitrator turned it into a six-month suspension.

Barreto said her contract doesn't restrict social media use.

Richard Gonzalez, clinical professor at law at Chicago Kent College of Law, said a recent Illinois law states employers can't retaliate against employees for "the lawful use of legal products away from the workplace." That increasingly has been interpreted to apply to social media, he said.

As for Barreto's post, "One could argue that she's really making a point about discrimination," Gonzalez said. "But I'm sure Elgin is going to argue, 'By the nature of your job, you're a public figure. You work for the city and the remark could be misinterpreted as racist.'"

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