A Greensboro police officer says he was fired because of his comments about George Floyd on the social-media platform TikTok, but the department disputes that version of events.
“Being transparent with y’all, for the last two months my job put me on administrative leave to do an investigation into my TikTok,” Ja’Quay Williams, the former officer says in an undated TikTok video that was posted on YouTube on Aug. 13. “After this investigation was done, I found out today that I was relieved of my duties from that certain job.”
In the initial TikTok video, posted shortly after the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, Williams says, “I am disgusted with the things that happened in Minneapolis. Pure and point-blank, things could have went way different. At the end of the day, let’s talk facts: Guy’s on the ground. He’s laying on his stomach. He had handcuffs on. It’s four of y’all, one of him. Four of y’all, one of him. Who has control of the situation? It’s not much one person could do against four people.”
Williams is wearing his uniform and is seated in his patrol car, but doesn’t identify himself as a Greensboro police officer and the agency isn’t identifiable on his badge.
“Now, let’s get deeper, right?” he continues. “As an officer, you are a first responder, right? So, if in the midst of you trying to gain compliance, someone is hurt, you have to render aid. So, if somebody is saying, ‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ you don’t think to yourself, ‘Oh, my gosh, this guy can’t breathe, he might die? Let me render aid?’ Right? Officers — other officers — if you’re going to be standing there and not help when things go wrong, come on! Like, you don’t see that? Like, that’s the reason I got behind this badge, right? Because them officers that’s afraid to step up, I want to be the one to step up. If I see wrong happening, wrong is not happening in my presence. I’m going to check it.”
In a press release today, the Greensboro Police Department confirmed that Williams was fired, but asserted, “Williams’ termination was not related to his comments about the George Floyd incident.”
The statement continued: “The command staff noted they do not have an issue with any of his statements in the George Floyd video and agree with his denouncement of the officers’ actions. Chief Brian James made similar statements in a press conference condemning the actions of the officers in involved in the George Floyd incident.”
Chief James said at a press conference shortly after Floyd’s death: “From a personal perspective, there was no reason for George Floyd to lose his life. There is nothing that I’ve ever seen in police training that would condone the actions of those officers.”
Ronald Glenn, a spokesperson for the Greensboro Police Department, declined to provide further comment on the reason for Williams’ termination, and would not clarify whether it was due to a violation of the department’s social-media policy or whether the TikTok video in any way led to the events that ultimately resulted in Williams’ firing. Under the North Carolina Personnel Privacy Act, a dismissal letter “setting forth the specific acts or omissions that are the basis of the dismissal” is considered a public record, but Glenn said the department has yet to prepare Williams’ dismissal letter.
Williams told Triad City Beat he was called into an interview with the Greensboro Police Department’s internal affairs division after posting the video about George Floyd. But he said he had been posting videos on TikTok for about a month prior to Floyd’s death.
“I would use the #HumanizeTheBadge hashtag,” he said. “It was to show people cops can be funny. Fast-forward, my following grew really fast. After the George Floyd thing happened, I was moved by it and upset.”
Williams said he agreed to change the videos to private at the recommendation of Internal Affairs, but after the meeting he discovered that they had already been re-shared.
“After the George Floyd video went viral, I did a video called ‘Hello, America,’ where I spoke on racial equality and how racial equality has been a hot topic for a minute, and how Black people are treated differently from white people,” Williams said. “They didn’t like that video. I was called back to IA. They told me they were putting me on administrative duty until the administrative investigation was completed. They put me in records, and took my gun and my badge. They gave me a hearing, and told me they were terminating me.”
Williams said he also got in trouble for going on “Tamron Hall,” a syndicated television show carried by WXII 12 News.
Williams said in the “Tamron Hill” interview that his decision to speak out about George Floyd’s death on social media was closely tied to his decision to get into law enforcement in the first place.
“I remember when I had that lightbulb moment,” Williams said. “It was after the Trayvon Martin verdict. We were at my father-in-law’s 50th birthday. And we were there; it was a bunch of people. The verdict came out: Not guilty. So, now I’m hugging my wife and her three sisters because everybody’s crying, and all I could think was, How do we get in front of this? This is happening over and over and over. How do we get in front of this thing? So, like I said, instead of just from the outside looking in, just saying, doing what we’re doing outside, what if I get on the inside and kind of make things go haywire, interrupt things, so I can figure out why this is happening, why they’re doing this.”
The internal affairs investigator was particularly concerned about Williams’ comment on why he decided to join the department.
“He said, ‘What did you mean, ‘By getting into the police department to make things go crazy?'” Williams recalled. “I said, ‘Bad choice of words.’ But what I mean is getting on the inside.”
Williams said he was ultimately cited for violations of general conduct and abuse of power. When he asked for an explanation for the abuse of power violation, Williams said the director of internal affairs said it had to do with “using the badge for monetary gain.”
“I’d been releasing shirts,” Williams said. “The design was all the way back before I became a police officer in July 2019. My social media has been the same all along. They knew everything. They knew I did music. Once I spoke about the George Floyd thing, it became an issue.”
The department has a three-page policy on social media that includes a section on “personal use.” The section says, in part, that “department personnel are cautioned that speech on- or off-duty, made pursuant to their official duties — that is, that owes its existence to the employee’s professional duties and responsibilities — is not protected speech under the First Amendment and may form the basis for discipline if deemed detrimental to the department.” The policy goes on to say that personnel “shall not post, transmit, or otherwise disseminate any information to which they have access as a result of their employment without written permission from the chief of police, or designee,” and specifically prohibits speech on social media “containing obscene or sexually explicit language, images, or acts and statements or other forms of speech that ridicule, malign, disparage, or otherwise express bias against any race, any religion, or any protected class of individuals.”
A GoFundMe page set up to raise money so that Williams can hire a lawyer had raised $35,000 towards a $50,000 goal as of Wednesday evening.
“Right now, my next step is I just really want to find out, was it okay what they did to me,” he said. “If someone tells me it’s lawful, then I’ll move on. But there are other officers that want to speak out, and right now they’re afraid to.”
Since this story was originally published, it has been updated to include comments from Ja’Quay Williams.