Monday, April 12

Forced-Out Franklin County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer Speaks Out [Interview]

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Let’s be clear: Marc Gofstein stands by what he posted, even if the results have been more than a bit dizzying.

“I’m 54 and never imagined I would be going through this type of whirlwind for doing something right and speaking out,” says Gofstein.

Last week, while observing the insurrection in Washington DC, Gofstein, the Public Information Officer for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, took to Facebook, posting:

Law enforcement freely letting mobs storm the Capitol Building, not stopping domestic terrorists from desecrating the House and Senate chambers, and even taking selfies with the Trumpies.

If this was a BLM protest, we’d be seeing tanks and mass casualties.

White privilege at its worst.

The following day, Gofstein says that he was called into the Sheriff’s office and told to either resign or be terminated. He resigned.

“The reality is, I didn’t make any accusations or any slander against my agency or any specific agency,” explains Gofstein. “I just simply posted what the world was watching and there is nothing I said that was incorrect.”

In a statement to The Columbus Dispatch, Sheriff Dallas Baldwin said that he respects First Amendment rights, but his social media policy “prohibits off-duty social media comments that would negatively affect the office, damage morale, or hurt our ability to protect the Franklin County families who count on us.”

The Buckeye Flame spoke with Gofstein, who will soon officially declare his candidacy for Columbus City Council, about these events and where he sits one week later.

Tell us briefly how you came to work for the Sheriff’s office and what a Public Information Officer actually does.
Before I came to the Sheriff’s office in 2017, I was doing political consulting for a firm in Columbus that ran campaigns, did printing of campaign literature, and was basically a full-service campaign consultancy. Towards the end of 2015, we signed on Dallas Baldwin as a client who was planning to run for Sheriff. Part of my background is political media, political strategy, and media operations, so I was assigned to Dallas to be his media coach: coach him through interviews, conduct mock interviews with him, and be in charge of the media program. Once he won the election—which shocked a lot of people—he came to my office a couple of days after the election and said, “I want you to be my Public Information Officer, as there hasn’t been one in 24 years.” The last Public Information Officer was in 1993. Since then, all of the Sheriffs have done their own media.

What a public information officer does is to serve as the face and voice of the Sheriff’s office in media: coordinating the message, going to crime scenes and bad crashes, and being a liaison between the deputies and detectives and the media, which allows the deputies and detectives to do their job without having to worry about having to speak to media or deal with them. My job was exclusively to be that media rep.

Is it fair to say that you are and have been a vocal presence with regards to accountability in the Sheriff’s office?
The key thing to know is that the Public Information Officer really has to maintain as much neutrality as possible. I am the face and the voice. Any time I open my mouth, it might as well be the Sheriff opening his mouth and speaking.

I have a history and background of activism, especially LGBTQ+ and civil rights in general. I’m a firm believer that injustice to one is injustice to all. As I tell folks, all lives can’t matter until Black lives matter. That’s something I’ve maintained in my personal life and have maintained that delicate balance outside the Sheriff’s office. I have been as vocal as I possibly can.

The reality is that the people who hate bad cops the most are good cops. My way of maneuvering is that the good cops far outnumber the bad cops. It’s astronomical. But we only see the bad cops. Internally within the agency, my job was to balance the actions of some with the reality of life. We can’t always sit there and go, “Oh I’m defending you regardless.” My job was to say, “You screwed up here. Let’s see how we can soften the blow but still emphasize that we made a mistake.” There’s a saying in our business, “Own the suck.” If you mess up, admit it. If you admit a mistake, it’s a five-minute story. If you try to distance yourself or try to avoid questions, it’s a five-week, five-month story.

Was there intentionality in what you posted on Facebook other than highlighting, “This is what’s happening in Washington D.C. right now”?
I just posted what America and the world was watching. This wasn’t an opinion post. I watched the whole thing unfold, because I have TVs all over my office. As we watched the whole riot unfold, we watched law enforcement officials—not all of them but there were visible ones—who were pulling the barricades back and welcoming the rioters and terrorists in to do whatever they do. We watched—and it’s a famous video now—the one officer taking selfies with the rioters.

Honestly, I had a moment of lapse through the emotion of the moment. My fingers started typing. I didn’t in the moment remember our social media policy, but I wasn’t posting anything inflammatory in my opinion.

And is that the social media policy? To not post anything inflammatory?
The social media policy is don’t post anything that is going to cast a negative light on the agency, don’t post anything inflammatory towards the agency, and obviously don’t post any threats or personal attacks. To me it’s a common-sense policy: don’t do anything that’s going to make the agency look stupid or the Sheriff look bad.

So then you get called in. How quickly did you know what that meeting was going to be?
Thursday morning, my coworker was texting me to say she was going to be late. She added, “I’m not your boss, but you probably want to remove that post you had.” I went and looked the post because I take her advice seriously. I was going to remove it and I saw the two last comments on it were from people who were Facebook friends with some former deputies who I’m friends with on Facebook. They barbecued and skewered me and called me a “blue falcon,” which in law enforcement means a traitorous bastard who pretty much deserves death. That kind freaked me out, so I pulled the post.

Within about 15 minutes, I got a call from the Sheriff’s executive assistant saying, “The Sheriff wants to meet with you at 10:30 and your Chief is going to be there.” I knew, “Ok, I’m going to get skewed, I’m going to get reprimanded. I’m going to get in trouble.” I started to panic because I’m an at-will employee. I’m not covered by the FOP contract. The reality is that I could terminated for any reason. But I just didn’t believe in that moment that termination was going to happen.

Do we use the word “ousted” here?
Ousted implies terminated. I was basically forced to submit my resignation. The way the sequence went, I got called in [to see]the Sheriff. There was no small-talk or pussy-footing around. He said what I posted had caused a lot of damage to him and that he was going to have to do repair for a long time. And then said, “I need you to submit your resignation or I will have to terminate you.” And that was it. I wasn’t given an opportunity to explain. I wasn’t given an opportunity to defend myself. It was, “Choose now.”

Where do you sit with this a week later?
I issued a statement on Friday when media started contacting me. My experience at the Sheriff’s office was great. Yes, there were times of crises of conscience, especially with the most recent Casey Goodson shooting. I won’t go into specifics as the Sheriff’s office doesn’t know anything about the case because it is being independently investigated. I thanked the Sheriff for giving me the opportunity and everything I experienced, especially with the good and honorable deputies who did their jobs on an everyday basis.

But I stressed that I wasn’t apologizing for what I said. I stood by it and I stand by it right now. You should never have to apologize for speaking up or speaking out, especially when you are witnessing an atrocity happening in front of your face. If it had been Black people instead of the Proud Boys or QAnon or other rioters, there wouldn’t have been the welcome, relaxed, “Come on in to the Capitol Building.” There would have been tanks. There would have been armored vehicles. And there would have been National Guard and other law enforcement in full riot gear.

You are also a human being with a family and expenses. How are navigating that?
I’m still trying to figure it out. I haven’t received my final check yet. The thing I’m worried more about than the financial part of it is that working for the county you get a really good benefits package. The older you get, the more you start experiencing health issues. And I have health issues just like anyone else who is over 50. That’s what worries me the most. But the job paid well. We are a household that has expenses. It’s tough to go back to a one-income household regardless of what the income is. It’s tough to do this when I’ve got bills, I’ve got credit cards, and I’ve got things I have to take care of.

You have a website out there declaring your candidacy for Columbus City Council. Where is the intersection between this past week and Marc Gofstein the candidate?
I have a long history of LGBTQ+ advocacy. I’ve lobbied on the Hill with the Human Rights Campaign, I’ve lobbied with state organizations. My advocacy goes all the way back to when I was in college back in 1993 and I was responsible for ousting military recruiting off of our campus because of their antigay policies. I was a part of an organization in San Francisco in 1996 that was pushing for same-sex marriage way before it was any kind of topic in the country. I’ve always stood with groups and organizations fighting for rights. I have politics in my blood.

My husband and I have been here in Columbus for 10 years. We found “home” the moment we got here. We moved in during Pride weekend in 2010. We were in our house on Friday with an air mattress, two suitcases, and two dogs. The next morning, I was marching in the parade with the Democratic party and all the candidates they had. I had community activism in Columbus before I had furniture.

I’m a Democratic Party Central Committee member representing my neighborhood. I have 50 plus campaigns of experience at all levels. I’m ready to take the next step in giving back to the city of Columbus and serving the people of Columbus in the same way they have been good to our family since moving here. The next step in that is serving the city on City Council.

We’re directing people to my website. We’re looking forward soon to making the big, official announcement. It’s exciting.  I’m not running against anyone, and I want to make sure people know that. I don’t run against people. I’m running for Columbus to bring my voice, my ideas and my perspective to the table and to work to get stuff done.

What do you want people to walk away with from this story?
What I think is really important is that [the Facebook post]was a statement of observation. This was a statement of the obvious. I want to make sure people know that this isn’t a one-time thing for me. I was given a forum to make that statement. And now, because of the actions the Sheriff took in forcing my resignation, I don’t have to mute myself and I can go back to doing what I do. And that’s calling attention to the fact that we have racial problems.

Our law enforcement has a lot of good things, but we need law enforcement reform. Real law enforcement reform. Not just “defunding.” I think that’s too simple of a term. We need to reallocate how we fund. We need to look at the stuff that law enforcement doesn’t need. You’ll get officers and deputies that will tell you that there are things they don’t need. Instead, there are things that they do need that they can’t get. The biggest thing with the Sheriff’s office is the lack of body cameras that are making all the difference in the world in the Casey Goodson case.

I’m a white, gay cisgender male. My demographic needs to be the ones opening their mouths, speaking truth, and calling people on their baloney when it comes to racial justice. The Black community has been pushing as hard as they can for so many years. But it’s going to take the white people to really magnify it. Because when we magnify it, we strengthen the Black voice, not take it over. My voice needs to be a support to point out the injustice, push for justice, and to make sure that Black lives matter so then all lives matter. Nothing more, nothing less. 🔥

 

 

About Author

Ken Schneck, Editor

Ken Schneck is the Editor of The Buckeye Flame. He is the author of "Seriously, What Am I Doing Here? The Adventures of a Wondering and Wandering Gay Jew" (2017), "LGBTQ Cleveland" (2018), "LGBTQ Columbus" (2019), and "LGBTQ Cincinnati" (2020). In his spare time, he is a professor of education at Baldwin Wallace University.

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