A police officer well-known in the community for having been the public face of the Nogales Police Department resigned last week as part of a settlement with the city.
Sgt. Robert Fierros, who had worked for NPD since 2002 and most recently served as the department’s spokesman, was fired on Oct. 23. However, after filing an appeal, he was allowed to resign instead, effective Dec. 23, in exchange for withdrawing his appeal and agreeing not to sue the city or seek any remuneration for fees and damages or other costs.
Though details about the case had previously been withheld from the public, documents released by the city last week in response to a public records request showed that Chief Roy Bermudez based the termination on what he called a “continued pattern and habit of insubordination,” including disregarding orders and publicly criticizing the department and its leaders.
“The severity of your conduct and the refusal to give effect to policy and procedure by consistently being defiant by ignoring directives issued to you, along with the actions you took by misrepresenting the Nogales Police Department in speech and controversial opinions without authorization, along with publicly criticizing orders, policies, co-workers, and the superiors of the Nogales Police Department, is not acceptable nor tolerated,” Bermudez told Fierros in a letter of intent to terminate.
For his part, Fierros said the termination was a form of retaliation for bringing to light problems within the department, including blowing the whistle on an officer who was abusing her power to make a subordinate do personal errands for her. The justifications for his discharge, he said, were cobbled together only after department administrators decided they wanted to oust him from the force.
“It wasn’t a pattern of mine. Recently some things were gathered to try to depict things that way to be able to justify the department taking action against me,” he said in an interview Tuesday.
According to a notice of intent to terminate dated Sept. 11, Bermudez found that Fierros, who had been put on administrative leave on Aug. 2 for unspecified reasons, had become increasingly insubordinate and unwilling to comply with directives from NPD leadership in the preceding months.
Among 14 points included as the basis for termination, Bermudez said that in June, Fierros had conducted an unauthorized investigation with another law enforcement agency by contacting Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Lt. Gerardo Castillo about NPD Lt. Veronica Hernandez, whom Fierros had filed a complaint against in May for abusing her rank. It also referred to an incident on July 20 in which an NPD vehicle became trapped in floodwaters during an attempt to rescue people trapped at a home during heavy rains. Fierros, one of several officers at the scene, was accused of ordering the officer driving the car to re-enter the floodwaters, where he became stuck.
However, the majority of the points for termination referred to criticism Fierros leveled against department administrators in a series of tweets and emails starting in June. They include responding to a department email after Bermudez directed the thread be cut off and the conversation be picked up at a meeting the following day, as well as making unauthorized tweets that violated a newly implemented social media policy and retweeting articles published in the Nogales International that were unflattering to the department.
The bulk of the incidents began after Lt. Robert Thompson issued a new NPD policy on July 21 for handling media inquiries and requiring that all social media posts be authorized in advance by command staff. After receiving the directive, Fierros edited a Twitter handle he used to tweet about the department, @NogalesPD_PIO, to say that it was not an NPD account and that the posts and retweets were his own. He continued using the account without departmental oversight.
On July 28, Fierros was informed via email that another officer was taking over the role of public information officer (PIO) and he had been reassigned to the patrol division. However, Fierros continued using the @NogalesPD_PIO account to tweet about the department, Bermudez said.
Then on July 31, Fierros wrote two emails that Bermudez, who was an applicant for police chief at the time, said were critical of the department.
In the first, written to the city human resources director, Fierros called his reassignment a “joke” and said: “But yet, I’m sure you will hear from one of the candidates in the upcoming (police chief) interviews that he’s been God’s gift to NPD, with the same redundant, empty terminology and empty promises he’s boasted time and time again. Like a broken record everyone is sick of hearing, but no one cares to remove from the record player.”
The same day, Fierros also responded to an email from a reporter in Tucson saying that his removal as PIO would make it harder for media to get information from the department. He also wrote that “things are counterproductive at NPD with the current decision-making going on.”
“Sgt. Fierros, again you are publicly criticizing orders, policies and misrepresenting the Nogales Police Department, which violates the City of Nogales Personnel Manual and the Nogales Police Department Standard Operating Procedures, and you continue with your pattern of insubordination,” Bermudez wrote in the Sept. 11 memo.
A string of other incidents, many made after Fierros was put on administrative leave on Aug. 2, included retweeting articles about NPD command staff who hadn’t completed required education requirements and an officer who had been arrested for DUI. Fierros added comments to the tweets such as: “(Still no communication within. Hush hush. Work out of sight/out of mind. The way these are handled does or takes away a lot from morale.”
Citing a slew of violations ranging from discrimination and harassment to insubordinate offenses to neglect of duty, Bermudez issued Fierros a termination of employment letter on Oct. 23.
“I found that you presented no evidence or conceivable justification for your egregious actions,” Bermudez wrote. “Furthermore, you fail to take any responsibility for your actions and you offer no indication that your continued pattern and habit of insubordination will change, only an attempt to justify six of the 14 points that were articulated.”
’A shame for the city’
Fierros said Bermudez’s accusations were an attempt to punish him for speaking out about problems within the department, culminating in his decision to go to city administrators with complaints against Hernandez after what he called inaction on the part of his supervisors.
“I have honorably served this community for over 16 years,” he said during an interview Tuesday. “I wouldn’t throw away a career where I’m essentially a few years out from retiring just to be insubordinate and disrespectful. I would not do that, no one in their right mind would do that. But I’ve spoken up and made some complaints that I think should be heard, and now all of the sudden in the last four months, I am just a bad enough employee that needs to be terminated. I think that deserves another look.”
On Nov. 3, Fierros’ lawyer Matthew Davidson filed an appeal of the termination. He said Fierros was not responsible for the NPD vehicle getting stuck in floodwaters and argued that Fierros’ free speech was at the crux of his termination.
According to Davidson, Fierros qualified for whistleblower protections against retaliation for speaking up against problems within the department.
Part of the problem, Davidson said, was that the department had no clear social media policy and with little direction, Fierros had done his work without issue until July, when a new policy was implemented and Fierros claimed the Twitter account as his own.
While Fierros admitted that he retweeted articles critical of NPD leadership after he was put on administrative leave, he said he felt at the time that it was the only way to keep problems at the department from being swept under the rug. He felt his fate had already been sealed, he said, and command staff was just looking for reasons to fire him.
“I can only describe it as my way of trying to keep that information alive, trying to inform the public and others that, yes, there is something wrong with the police department. Yes, we do need some reform, and this is a person who works there and knows telling you that,” he told the NI.
“Double standards were clear in the department,” he said, in reference to how he and others were prohibited from speaking freely. “How can you tell the community you’re out there wanting to do right by them and being trustworthy and transparent, when inside your own officers aren’t seeing that and are being told and taught that they don’t have a voice and whatever you say as command staff, that’s what’s going to be believed and that’s what’s going to be portrayed?”
Speaking on Thursday, Davidson said he felt Fierros had a strong case for appeal based both on whistleblower protections and because he had only written things that were true about NPD. However, Fierros ultimately didn’t think it was worth it to return to a department where he felt he would continue to be retaliated against if he didn’t stay quiet, so he opted to voluntarily resign as of Dec. 23 and have all accusations against him dropped.
“It’s unfortunate because he really is an excellent police officer, but he’s made a decision to move on. I think it’s a shame for the city,” Davidson said.
“I loved serving the community. I have absolutely no regrets as to how I served and to how I’ve done things,” Fierros said. “And I am unapologetically happy to move on from NPD.”
Bermudez said that while he welcomes feedback from employees and encourages “respectable communication,” Fierros’ actions went beyond that.
“Based on the totality of factors it was felt that Mr. Fierros had become a liability and disruptive to the department,” he wrote in an email on Thursday. “The action taken against Mr. Fierros was based on his conduct and nothing else. His intentional violations of known policies clearly indicated he did not wish to comply with departmental policy and he would not change.”
Bermudez added that Fierros’ choice not to further pursue an appeal “speaks volumes about the lack of merit regarding his allegations.”
“My top priority is to strengthen our foundation which consists of open communication, respect and honor,” he said. “I encourage input from all of our employees in order to deal with deficiencies, whether it is to report a violation of policy, or input on how to improve their working conditions.”