La PORTE — A Facebook post that led to a storm of criticism and charges of racism on social media was only controversial because of an “error,” according to La Porte’s top police officer.
The post, which claims to show U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar holding a rifle “at a training camp in Somalia,” was posted by Chief Tom Owens, but he said his intent was the opposite of what happened.
He was actually trying to draw attention to the proliferation of “fake news” on Facebook, Owens said, but the comment he added to the post, which appeared on his personal Facebook page, did not appear.
“I’m not sure if it was my error or Facebook’s error, but I added a message to the top of the post that said, ‘Really people, this is too far and not fair’,” Owens said. “I do not stand for what that post was and I know it’s just more fake news.”
He took down the post and put up a retraction, explaining that it went up without the intended message attached, he said.
While initial reaction on social media ran from calls for Owens to be fired to outrage that a public official would make such a post, once Owens’ “apology” went up, opinion became much more divided.
On one thread, Susan Flores posted: “I don’t buy his flimsy explanation, especially since he posts right wing propaganda.”
But in response, Sean McCormack wrote: “reference US Constitution - Amendment 1. I believe it still exists despite your desire to eliminate its protection for half the population comrade.”
And another response from Joseph Coates read: “It does not protect you from the public opinion forcing you to quit, or for that mater having real world consequences to what you say. Don’t say stupid things in public.”
The meme, which has been widely debunked, is obviously “fake news,” Owens said. “You can clearly see it was fake – just some old picture of who knows who, taken who knows where and who knows when. It’s just wrong on so many levels.”
Many others said the initial post was what was wrong.
Michigan City’s PARC (Politics Art Roots Culture) posted: “It looks like the Police Chief of LaPorte, Tom Owens, is a xenophobic-racist.”
Vince Emmanuele of PARC posted: “LaPorte’s Police Chief, like most officials in this country, is a racist clown. Today, he posted this meme attempting to link Rep. Omar to Al Qaida. Not only is this xenophobic and dangerous – it’s also quite ignorant as Omar was born four years after this picture was taken.”
And Sarah Zawacki of OURMC wrote: “La Porte (IN) Police Department needs to fire this officer. If he is so comfortable being racist on a public forum, one has to wonder how he is treating people of color on the job.”
Owens said posts like those are from people who don’t know him.
“You can look at all my posts,” he said, “and see there is no attack on anyone for their creed or race. But when the post went up without the message, it changed the whole meaning.”
Many others on social media were supportive of Owens.
“Leave this person alone if you don’t know him personally,” one man posted.
Chris Fine, retired Kingsford Heights marshal, posted: “I’ve known Tom for decades. Being conservative does mean ‘ist’ anything. ... He is the most professional officer I know.”
Many others also posted that they’d known Owens for many years and never known him to be racist, just a conservative.
And James Nemecek wrote: “Give me a break. Someone is always going to find what they want to hear. What about all the hard work and sacrifices he’s made?”
Owens said he understands some of the negative reaction, but not the personal attacks.
“I’m beside myself at being attacked like this,” he said. “If I was deserving of this criticism, I would admit it, but that’s not me and everybody knows it. But now they are posting my address and phone number online and that is going too far.”
He said he has spoken to La Porte Mayor Mark Krentz about the post and “He understands. He can see what happened. He follows my Facebook page and knows that’s not something I would post.”
Krentz did not respond to a request for comment.
Owens said he believes much of the backlash is from people with other agendas.
“Anyone who knows me knows I am not like this. Anyone who said I would support anything like this is wrong,” he said. “A lot of it is people taking advantage of the situation to slam me and slam the department and slam law enforcement. Some people just don’t like the police.”
‘WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT IT’
LuAnn Schreiber no longer lives in La Porte County, but she keeps up with what’s going on in the area where she was born and raised, and said she was “horrified” to see the Facebook post put up by La Porte Police Chief Tom Owens.
A Michigan City native whose husband was pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church, she also lived in Long Beach for a time. She now lives in Greenwood, Indiana, where she’s “part of a group that formed because of a passion for seeing immigrants treated as human beings, with respect and dignity,” she said.
And she was left “speechless by the post. “It’s bad enough for anyone to post something like that, but to then learn that he was the chief of police was really disturbing,” Schreiber said. “It is the total opposite of what we are trying to accomplish.
“If I was a Muslim or a person of color living in the community, I would definitely feel afraid or uncomfortable, wondering about the police force and if they were our friends.”
She said her group, Compassion for Immigrants, does not deal in fake memes and social media gimmicks. “We just try to keep people informed, by posting articles – Pultizer Prize-winning articles – and research, calls for actions, telling people to contact their congressmen ... I’m an activist for equality.”
And while she understands the uproar is likely uncomfortable for Owens, she said it’s something that “has to be talked about” publicly.
“I look at the detention centers today and liken them to concentration camps. I’m old enought to have an awareness of history and I see our country on a slippery slope. If we don’t talk about things like this, then it will never be addressed.
“And it’s not going away,” Schreiber said. “We can’t just sweep it under the rug.”