The Geraldine Town Council voted 5-1 to terminate the employment of the town’s assistant police chief, Jeff Buckles. Councilman Terry Harris was the sole vote against firing the officer.
Mayor Chuck Ables said the council went into executive session to discuss good name and character before the vote and considered the recommendation of an independent attorney who had meet with Buckles and other parties at a private due process hearing on Feb. 25.
Ables said it was a tough call because Buckles is well-liked in the community and had “done a great job” as a police officer. He said nothing Buckles might have done while previously employed with the Fort Payne Police Department factored into the council’s decision.
“[Buckles] admitted he violated the department’s social media policy and apologized several times. It’s tough because I consider him a friend. But he made a mistake and violated policy, so we just had to deal with it. When I became mayor, I took an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States and and Alabama and the policies of the town of Geraldine. And that’s what I am going to do, tough as it may be. He had due process for sure. We checked all of those boxes.”
When asked whether he and the council were swayed by the calls and messages the town had received from people claiming to be from at least 10 states, Ables said, “Not at all.”
On Feb. 4, Buckles took to his personal Facebook to comment about U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial decision to rip up her copy of President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address as a form of protest as the president concluded the televised speech.
Buckles’ Facebook post said: “Pelosi just ripped up his speach [sic] Road Side bomb on her way home and any other Dumbocrats.”
After the meeting adjourned, Ables spoke directly to Buckles. He said he offered to help him any way he could and was confident that Buckles’ political preferences do not get in the way of him treating all citizens the same.
“I feel 100 percent like he would treat [Democrats] fairly. It might be a concern about how they felt, but it wouldn’t be a concern to me because I feel like I know him well enough and he has always been fair,” Ables said.
The mayor said “I can’t comment on that” when asked whether he had been contacted by anyone from the federal government about Buckles possibly violating the law that made it a felony to knowingly and willfully make "any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm” upon anyone in the presidential order of succession. The Speaker of the House of Representatives is third in line to replace a President if the Vice President is unable to serve.
Buckles, 55, talked to reporters from The Times-Journal and The Sand Mountain Reporter outside the council building after the meeting ended. He was asked about the support he’d received inside of the community over the past month.
“I feel good. I mean, I love this town. I love the people in it. And you wouldn’t believe the support I’ve gotten. All of my haters are from all over the country,” Buckles said.
Asked if he thought his critics misunderstood his intentions with the post, Buckles said, “I guess. There was no threat there. There’s a lot of people who file reports about getting harassed on Facebook. And I tell them, ‘Facebook is the devil. You need to stay off of Facebook.’”
Buckles said he didn’t realize his own Facebook profile was set to public, which meant that anyone visiting the website could see his posts, which served as a way to vent frustration.
“I wasn’t looking for agreement [to the Facebook post]. I just couldn’t believe it when [Nancy Pelosi] tore up [President Donald Trump’s State of the Union] speech. That was the first thing that popped into my mind, and I just spit it out there. I posted it, I went to bed and didn’t think nothing else about it. The next morning, I was, like, ‘Holy Crap!’ And so I apologized,” Buckles told reporters.
He realized the Facebook post was getting the wrong kind of attention as he and his wife were preparing to leave the next day to Gatlinburg on a trip to celebrate their 38th wedding anniversary. His post sparked criticisms that a member of law enforcement shouldn’t be making those kinds of comments, as well as others defending his right to free speech and agreeing with his outrage toward Pelosi. Despite apologizing and removing the offending post from his Facebook, it was too late. “Screengrabs” capturing the comment circulated on other users’ Facebook newsfeeds.
The officer said that despite decades of public service as a police officer and veteran, he was being judged because of “one comment… Two-and-a-half years away from retirement. I’ll try [to find another job in law enforcement], but with as much publicity as this has got…”
When asked if he intends to leave the social network, Buckles said he’ll limit his activity to hitting the “Like” button and “if somebody is friends with a hundred of my friends that I actually know, I might accept them [as new online friends]. It took me a whole weekend, but I finally figured out how to go private.”
During Tuesday’s vote, there was a heated exchange between Mayor Ables and citizen Gerald Tillman, who stood up as the council prepared to vote. He asked if the council had purposely denied citizens an opportunity to speak on Buckles’ behalf. Ables answered that the council does usually allow time for public comments as a courtesy but is under no legal obligation to do this and had decided against opening the floor for comments.
Tillman then asked council members if they were aware that Buckles’ attorney was not present and asked if the officer could appeal the termination on that basis. Ables responded that the attorney was given notice of the meeting and cut Tillman off, telling him to “sit down and be quiet” if he was going to stay in the room. The attorney’s public Facebook page contains photos from a Caribbean vacation. Ables said he was notified a week in advance when the meeting would be.
The mayor said the police department has been filling the void left by Buckles’ paid suspension using certified part-time officers during their off days from other towns. He said Geraldine may send a new employee to the police academy and has applied for grants to help with the cost of doing that.
“We still have 24-hour protection by certified officers,” Ables said.