Before he was hired as a Portland police officer, Eric Salmestrelli posted numerous times in an extremist Facebook group — making him one of hundreds of current or retired cops doing the same across the U.S., a national investigation found this summer.
The report also exposed a troubling corollary: Law enforcement employees in Oregon like Salmestrelli can fall between the cracks of the state’s opaque and relatively patchwork system of social media checks-and-balances.
Reveal, a nonprofit news outlet, showed that Salmestrelli, going by the name “Eric Sal,” shared a video in January 2016 in a group called the Military Patriot Oath Keepers. The video started on a black screen with a single question: “Is Barack Obama a Saudi-Muslim ‘Plant’ in the White House?”
The episode turned scrutiny on Portland police during a long, hot summer of controversy, including accusations that officers have shown favoritism to both right-wing activists and anti-fascist counterprotesters during bloody brawls downtown.
And it raised questions about how cases like Salmestrelli’s can slip through a police department’s hiring process.
Part of the answer lies with a state system of limited tracking.
No statewide policy explicitly prohibits officers from making racist or discriminatory comments online. Some individual police agencies have their own guidelines for using social media, but others have no instructions at all.
And while most agencies review social media posts during an officer’s hiring process, the anonymous nature of social media and online privacy protections make comments like Salmestrelli’s difficult to find without knowing where to look.
Many groups on Facebook are “secret,” meaning they can be found only if a user is invited to join by an existing member. Others are “closed” with content accessible only after an administrator approves a request to join.
Police agencies already tread a delicate balance between protecting the free speech rights of officers and ensuring they meet general standards that call for honesty and integrity, said Randy Blazak, a former Portland State University professor who has spent his career studying hate crimes and extremist groups.
“We’re in kind of a new territory in terms of hateful activity,” Blazak said. “It’s no longer the bad old days when you were a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. Now you just sort of drift in and out.”
Reveal’s investigation looked at members of Facebook groups known to express extremist views to see who had connections to law enforcement.
Salmestrelli was the only officer in Oregon that the investigation discovered. Reveal said its report was limited by its access to these groups.
Screenshots taken by Reveal show Salmestrelli posted multiple times in the Military Patriot Oath Keepers group. The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the Oath Keepers as an anti-government movement. In one comment from 2016, Salmestrelli referred to former President Barack Obama having a “progressive jihadi agenda.”
Reveal also said it found Salmestrelli’s profile on the members list of a Facebook group called the Voice of the American Infidels. The group didn’t allow Reveal reporters to join, but they found its public description on Facebook, which stated, “This group is for those who wish to speak out about the evils of Islam. All members of this group want Islam removed from America.”
The Oregonian/OregonLive was unable to independently verify Reveal’s screenshots. The Military Patriot Oath Keepers group is closed and the Voice of the American Infidels was no longer publicly viewable on Facebook.
Portland police investigated Salmestrelli for three months and he remains employed at the bureau, said spokeswoman Lt. Tina Jones. She declined to comment on the methods or results of the investigation, saying it was a personnel matter.
An internal affairs supervisor with the Portland bureau told Reveal that police took no action in Salmestrelli’s case because the posts came before the agency hired him in 2017.
Salmestrelli came to Portland from the Burlington County Sheriff’s Department in New Jersey, where he was a deputy for 11 years, including during the time the posts were made, records show.
Salmestrelli didn’t respond to requests for comment made through Jones or to messages sent to his Facebook profile. Calls made to what appears to be his personal phone weren’t picked up, and a message couldn’t be left as his voicemail was full.
It’s unclear how many police agencies in Oregon have specific policies that govern officer social media use.
The Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, the state’s police certification agency, doesn’t require such policies, said Director Eriks Gabliks.
That leaves local police to set their own rules — and Gabliks said most would adhere to a general law enforcement code of ethics that prohibits officers from engaging in behavior that would “discredit” their agency.
The Portland Police Bureau adopted a social media policy last September. It forbids employees from posting anything that “negatively expresses bias or disrespect towards any race, religion, sex, gender, marital or familial status, sexual orientation, nationality, age, disability or any other legally protected classification,” even on their private accounts. The policy was created in the wake of posts by Portland officers altering images of their badges before the grand jury verdict in the police shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager, in Missouri.
In contrast, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, for example, has a social media policy that details procedures only for its official social media accounts, not the private accounts of deputies. It does have a policy that bars policing deemed explicitly biased, which prohibits treating people differently on the basis of any protected classification.
Jones said there have been no recorded violations of the Portland police policy since it was enacted.
During the hiring process, the bureau reviews “publicly available social media” of a candidate, she said. It appears that wouldn’t include Salmestrelli’s posts because they were made in a closed group.
Jones also pointed to state law that prevents employers from requiring access to social media accounts that aren’t already public.
In a statement, she said the bureau “places the highest priority on hiring and retaining officers with integrity.”
Police rely on psychological examinations that include “components to assess biases” to vet officer applicants, she said.
The bureau doesn’t track how many candidates wash out specifically because of bias, she said, but noted that in general, 10% to 15% of applicants don’t pass the psychological examination phase.
Police use other screening tools as well, Jones said, but the bureau keeps some of its techniques under wraps to prevent candidates from gaming the system.
Still, the screening sometimes doesn’t catch everything, she said.
“The background process is rigorous, but there will always be the possibility of imperfection in the process,” Jones said.
A stream of recent disclosures across the country about racist and sexist postings by law enforcement officers on both private and public sites feeds perceptions of police bias, say watchdogs like Blazak.
In June, an investigation by a database group called the Plain View Project revealed thousands of offensive posts by officers from Philadelphia to Phoenix. They were found by examining public posts made by people with profiles whose names matched the published employee rosters of police agencies.
And Portland residents’ distrust of police officers is already high, particularly among minorities, a consultant’s study found earlier this year in surveys done for the bureau’s five-year strategic plan.
Hate crimes are already underreported, Blazak said, and the belief that members of a police force are biased can make people even less likely to come forward.
“A lot of policing is based on relationships with communities, and if people don’t feel like they can trust the police or police share the biases of the people that attacked them, it makes their job a lot harder,” he said.
Blazak acknowledged that police have a legal responsibility to protect the rights of their employees to express themselves online and said officers who resort to derogatory speech on social media are a small portion of law enforcement.
But he said the question comes down to whether officers can represent the interests of all residents, regardless of race, religion or any other classification.
“Officers have to represent the entire community,” he said. “If there’s evidence that they don’t respect portions of the community, they’re not qualified to do the work that they were hired to do.”
CORRECTION: This story was updated to note that Randy Blazak is a former professor at Portland State University. One of his quotes also was fixed to change “battle days” to “bad old days.”
This story was completed with information from Reveal’s Reporting Networks. revealnews.org/network.