More than a dozen officers who donned red "Make America Great Again" hats while in uniform will be "disciplined appropriately," the San Antonio police chief announced Tuesday night.
In a statement posted to Twitter, police chief William McManus wrote that members of the department’s motorcycle unit who were assigned to help escort the Trump motorcade and ended up appearing in a campaign video for the Republican nominee had "violated SAPD policy." The officers are seen in the 25-second video wearing Trump's signature red caps, some giving the candidate the thumbs-up as he thanks them.
"The officers displayed poor judgment," wrote Chief McManus. "I expect them to know better than to give the appearance of endorsing a candidate while on duty and in uniform, regardless of the political campaign or the candidate."
Questions surrounding the role of police in campaigns have received increased attention in the past year, due to several high-profile incidents involving officers in uniform appearing to endorse political candidates. Some argue that officers should be allowed to express their freedom of speech; others say the practice violates policy and sets the wrong tone for a democracy.
This isn't the first time uniformed police officers have appeared in a promotional video for Donald Trump. Last month, the city of Phoenix, Ariz., sent the Republican nominee's campaign a cease-and-desist letter over a television ad that showed Trump speaking with on-duty Phoenix officers. But unlike the officers in San Antonio, the Phoenix police said they were not intentionally showing support for Trump, did not realize that they had been photographed, and had not given permission for their images to appear in the ad.
In his letter to the Trump campaign, City Attorney Brad Holm argued that the video violated federal and state law by using copyrighted material without permission, writing, "In this context, the ad unmistakably and wrongfully suggests that Phoenix and the officers support or endorse Mr. Trump's campaign."
The San Antonio police, caught on video wearing campaign gear, were in violation of a different type of city policy that prohibits officers from participating in political activity while acting in their capacity as city employees, the San Antonio Express-News reports.
A number of cities and states have similar policies, to varying degrees. Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay came under fire this summer for speaking at the Democratic National Convention while in uniform, leading to complaints that the uniformed appearance was in violation of the municipal code.
The debate over whether he had truly violated policy spurred several investigations on the matter, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports: Chief McLay insisted that his speech was not campaigning – yet, accusers pointed out, professional campaign speech writers had edited his remarks. Last month, in response to the incident, Pittsburgh's mayor asked the city's public safety director to consider creating clearer regulations on such matters.
A similar debate has ensued in New Hampshire in recent weeks, after Senate hopefuls Sen. Kelly Ayotte and Gov. Maggie Hassan each featured law enforcement in advertisements. New Hampshire's Department of State Police does have a policy prohibiting members from appearing in uniform "for testimonial or commercial purposes," according to the New Hampshire Union Leader.
But Sen. Ayotte claimed that the appearance was protected by the First Amendment rights of the officers. And Brian Buonamano, senior assistant attorney general, told the Union Leader that the state's Department of Justice had not offered guidance on the matter of officers appearing in endorsements.
"I can say that police officers do not sacrifice their right to freedom of speech by becoming a police officer," Mr. Buonamano said.
Opponents of uniformed officers appearing in political ads or at campaign events argue that their presence sets a dangerous tone for a democracy.
"Having uniformed officers endorse a politician at a campaign event can either give the candidate an aura of support from the government itself or make people afraid to oppose the police choice, which is inappropriate in elective politics," Newsday wrote in an editorial published last year.
Some reactions to the San Antonio officers wearing Trump hats voiced similar concerns.
"So, I guess @SATXPolice officially only protects and serves SOME people," one Twitter user wrote.