SAN JOSE — A San Jose police officer who drew national scorn in December for his combative tweets antagonizing the Black Lives Matter movement — including some widely viewed as violent threats — has been fired by the San Jose Police Department, this newspaper has learned.
Sources on Wednesday confirmed the termination of Phillip White, who had been a well-regarded member of SJPD for over two decades and was heavily involved in youth outreach, particularly with anti-gang programs.
A statement from the police department said only that White “is no longer an employee with the city of San Jose.” Neither the police department nor the City Attorney’s Office offered further comment, including specifying when the city cut ties with White, citing privacy laws governing personnel matters.
White’s Twitter posts were widely condemned by the department, the police union, city leaders and local social-justice groups after they surfaced on the news website BuzzFeed, as momentum surged behind the Black Lives Matter movement born from the controversial police killings of unarmed black men in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York.
The most inflammatory tweets read, “Threaten me or my family and I will use my God given and law appointed right and duty to kill you. #CopsLivesMatter” and “By the way if anyone feels they can’t breathe or their lives matter I’ll be at the movies tonight, off duty, carrying my gun.”
“I think they did the right thing,” said Walter Wilson, a community activist and board member of the city’s African American Community Service Agency. “You can’t be in a position of authority making these statements in a public forum. It erodes the trust of the public in law enforcement.”
Attempts to reach White on Wednesday were unsuccessful.
The second post was an allusion to the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, who died after being put in a chokehold by an NYPD police officer and whose last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a national rallying cry against police brutality.
After the tweets were made public, the police department quickly placed White on paid administrative leave and launched an Internal Affairs investigation that culminated in his firing. Many of his colleagues expressed shock when the news broke in December, saying the acts did not track with what they knew about White.
The Santa Clara District Attorney’s Office also evaluated the case, but ultimately decided no charges could be filed because no one was specifically threatened. But legal experts have said that while his tweets were covered by free-speech protections, the department could still terminate him if it determined the comments had irreversibly diminished his effectiveness as a police officer, particularly in gaining community trust.
Before being let go by SJPD, the fallout from White’s tweets came quickly. Menlo College, where he worked as an assistant basketball coach, cut ties with him, and community groups staged a large protest at SJPD headquarters that drew an unexpected appearance by Chief Larry Esquivel, who expressed sympathy toward the demonstrators.
It does not appear that the controversial tweets were isolated; several weeks before he was placed on leave, he posted comments criticizing Twitter users objecting to excessive force by police. In that same span, he was featured in this newspaper for his work with elementary school kids focused on gang prevention and teaching them how to make positive life choices.