Protest Watch

Denver Riot Cop's Instagram Leads to Career Suicide — for Now

An Instagram photo shared by Denver Police Officer Thomas McClay led to his firing.
An Instagram photo shared by Denver Police Officer Thomas McClay led to his firing. Instagram via Fox31
Amid the ongoing protests in Denver following the in-custody death of George Floyd, the Denver Police Department has terminated the employment of Officer Thomas McClay over a very bad joke: an Instagram post showing him and two fellow cops outfitted for combat over a caption that reads, "Let's start a riot."

But will McClay stay fired? Based on evidence from the past, that's hardly guaranteed.

There have been numerous times over the past decade or so when sacked Denver officers were reinstated or received relief after appealing their dismissals, with the most notorious instance involving Randy Murr and Devin Sparks.

More than eleven years ago, in April 2009, Murr and Sparks beat Michael DeHerrera in front of a now-defunct LoDo club called 5 Degrees, where he and a companion, Shawn Johnson, had tried to use the women's bathroom. DeHerrera was on the phone with his father, Anthony DeHerrera, a longtime member of the Pueblo Sheriff's Department, during the incident.

click to enlarge The full shot, including the caption, "Let's start a riot." - INSTAGRAM VIA FOX31
The full shot, including the caption, "Let's start a riot."
Instagram via Fox31
Murr and Sparks were initially given a mere three-day suspension for roughing up DeHerrera — but in 2011, following a community uproar over the matter, which was captured on video, their punishment was increased to termination. The action spurred a lengthy court battle that ended in March 2020, when the Colorado Supreme Court refused to hear the City of Denver's appeal of a lower court ruling in the officers' favor. As a result, the pair were technically eligible for rehiring by the Denver Police Department and nine years' worth of back pay that would almost certainly exceed $500,000 for each. At last report, the City of Denver was working with attorneys for Murr and Sparks to reach a resolution that could include a sizable cash settlement.

There's also the matter of precedent. As documented in our 2019 post "Eight Times Denver Cops Ran Afoul on Social Media," departmental discipline has been meted out on numerous occasions for violating the DPD's social media policy, but none of the featured law enforcers were fired — though several jumped before they could be pushed.

The most prominent case in the roundup involved Bethany Candelaria, who abruptly left her new job in communications and marketing for the Denver Sheriff Department in December 2018 after then-KNUS radio hosts Julie Hayden and Chuck Bonniwell shared controversial posts from her Facebook page, including one that read, "Go F*ck Yourselves, America."

Officer Scott Murphy also resigned after being called on the carpet because he posted a critical photo of then-Chief Robert White; Deputy Ann Romero did likewise for using her personal Facebook account to contact the son of an inmate on the latter's behalf; and Deputy David Quintana quit after a former inmate at the Denver jail alleged that following her incarceration, he "sought her profile on Facebook, sent her photographs in and out of uniform and initiated an intimate relationship which led to a pregnancy."

In contrast, Officer Daniel Veith was fined just two days for "posting an article and comment...questioning the leadership ability of the current DPD administration," and Officer Damian Phillips was hit with five fined days after he "shared on image on Facebook depicting a bloody vehicle with a severed hand on the hood accompanied by the caption, 'I don't know what you mean by protesters on the freeway. I came through with no problem.'" Beefs with two others, Officer Daniel Politica and Captain Kenneth Juranek, weren't sustained.

Because McClay, a recent hire, was still on probationary status when the incident occurred, as noted by the Denver Police Protective Association, he may have less power to dispute his pink-slipping than the octet above. Then again, being fired by the Denver Police Department isn't always the end of the line.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts