Police justified in slapping protesters who flip off cops, police union president says on Facebook; group plans protest

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ANTIOCH, Calif. — The president of the city’s police union is facing criticism and calls to resign, over a Facebook comment saying that slapping a protester who flipped off a cop would be “100% justified.”

Cpl. Steve Aiello made the comment on his personal Facebook account, on a meme posted to Antioch’s Crime Prevention Commission. The meme — posted by another user — depicted a woman giving the middle finger to an officer during a protest, and contained the caption, “Maybe it’s the people, not the cops, that need ‘better training.’ ”

“I firmly believe an open hand slap in the face is 100% justified in this (sic) incident,” Aiello commented. The comment — and the meme — have since been deleted.

“When a police officer is standing there doing nothing and a person is antagonizing them, why is that OK?” Aiello wrote.

When another poster wrote, with apparent sarcasm, “we are supposed to me more understanding, remember?” Aiello replied, “oh yeah, I forgot.”

Antioch residents have already planned a protest at 3 p.m. Wednesday over the remarks, at Antioch City Park. Attendees will demand Aiello resign, according to a news release by the protest’s organizers. The news release accuses Aiello of “advocating violence against peaceful protesters.”

In an email Monday night, Aiello walked back his comment, saying that he “would never promote violence on anyone” and that he supports “ ‘peaceful’ protests,” putting the word peaceful in quotes.

“The comment was taken out of context. The activists are simply creating their own narrative,” Aiello wrote.

In his interpretation, Aiello said, the woman’s actions were “in fact not peaceful and were antagonist in nature. That’s how I interpreted the original post.” In a subsequent email to The Mercury News, though, he acknowledged the gesture is “free speech.”

A free speech advocate said Monday that the gesture is clearly protected speech.

“It shouldn’t have to be said that police should not be striking protesters for exercising their right of free expression, even if that expression is offensive,” said David Snyder, executive director of the San Rafael based First Amendment Coalition. “Courts have held that the middle finger is protected expression under the First Amendment. As such it can’t be the basis of punishment, much less physical violence.”

Last year a federal court in Cincinnati ruled that flipping off the police, as onerous as some many find it, is free speech. The case stemmed from a Michigan traffic stop in which a woman received a ticket and made the gesture to the officer, who then pulled her over again.

Aiello is not the first Antioch official to find himself in the spotlight for controversial Facebook comments. In May, the City Council removed then-planning commissioner Ken Turnage II over a Facebook post that said people should “let nature take its course” instead of imposing restrictions to stop the spread of coronavirus.

Wednesday’s protest will also target Antioch Officer Michael Mellone, who left the San Francisco Police Department and joined Antioch’s force this year. He resigned just before internal affairs investigators in San Francisco recommended he be suspended for 10 days for shooting a man with a bean-bag gun that set off a chain of events that ended with Mellone and another officer killing the man moments later.


(Staff writer Judith Prieve contributed to this report.)


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