Renton, Washington: Where Cartoons Are a Bigger Offense Than Gross Abuses of Police Power


In a follow-up to yesterday's KIRO-TV story about the Renton, Washington, police department's pursuit of the online parodist known as "Mr. Fuddlesticks," Renton Patch reports that Deputy Chief Charles Marsalisi "was recently demoted to sergeant over his role in or knowledge of" Mr. Fuddlesticks' Xtranormal cartoons mocking the department and alluding to recent internal affairs investigations. Meanwhile, according to documents (PDF) obtained by the Patch, Deputy Chief Tim Troxel merely lost a day's pay for asking an on-duty officer to stake out the home of a girlfriend he suspected of cheating on him. That contrast gives you a sense of the professional milieu that gave rise to the cartoons. 

The Patch says one set of cartoons, uploaded in January, triggered the internal investigation that led to Marsalisi's demotion, which presumably was the inspiration for the "Locker Room Parody" cartoon I quoted yesterday, in which the cop character wonders "why an anonymous video with no identifying information that ties it to the department or city is being taken more seriously than officers having sex on duty, arguing with outside agencies while in a drunken stupor off duty, sleeping while on duty, throwing someone off a bridge, and having inappropriate relationships with coworkers and committing adultery." The police did not claim that the first set of cartoons constituted a crime. But in their July 28 application for a search warrant demanding information about Mr. Fuddlesticks from Google, they say a second set, uploaded in April, amounts to "cyberstalking" because the cartoons include "embarrassing and emotionally tormenting comments about past sexual relationships or dating relationships" involving three city employees. That definition of cyberstalking is broad enough to encompass, say, criticism of Deputy Chief Troxel for using official police resources to spy on his girlfriend (who was also a city employee).

Washington state's definition of the crime is indeed broad, so broad that it is hard to reconcile with the First Amendment. The part on which the Renton investigation hinges makes it a gross misdemeanor to transmit "an electronic communication" with "intent to harass, intimidate, torment, or embarrass any other person" when the communication includes "any lewd, lascivious, indecent, or obscene words, images, or language, or suggesting the commission of any lewd or lascivious act." KIRO has added to its collection of Mr. Fuddlesticks cartoons since yesterday, so you can judge for yourself whether any of the six available here qualify as a crime under this definition. If they do, it's the law that needs to go, not the cartoons.

The cartoons do repeatedly refer to sexual relationships, but their main target is waste, incompetence, misconduct, and a culture that tolerates them. ("Job Tips Parody," which seems to be the last of the cartoons, gives a pretty comprehensive summary of Mr. Fuddlesticks' complaints.) One of the funniest aspects of the scandal is that the cartoons never identify the department or name any real people, so in order to get upset about them Renton police officials had to recognize themselves as the bureaucratic buffoons lampooned by Mr. Fuddlesticks. In one of the cartoons, "Reprimand Parody," which takes place on Xtranormal's rendering of a late-night talk show set, a police chief in a cowboy hat scolds a cop for making satirical videos about the department:

Chief: I want you to stop, or else face the consequences.

Cop: What kind of consequences do you mean? Do you mean that I may get a few days off without pay?

Chief: It will be more than that.

Cop: Are you saying that speaking my opinion in public about the government or disclosing activities of the government, both protected under the United States Constitution, will have me facing consequences worse than [if I were] having sexual relations with a homicide suspect while disclosing the criminal investigation to the suspect?

Chief: That has nothing to do with your comments. 

Cop: Are you saying that my punishment will be greater than if I had used department resources to stalk and conduct police surveillance of citizens, girlfriends, and wives?

Chief: That has nothing to do with your comments.

Cop: Are you saying that my punishment will—

Chief: Just hold on a minute. I got your point. Just go away.

In an interview late last month, by the way, Police Chief Kevin Milosevich confessed that he was facing "unprecedented" personnel issues and directly contradicted the "Locker Room Parody" bureaucrat, who says, "The department does not like laundry being aired in public." By contrast, Milosevich told the Renton Patch, "We have to air our dirty laundry." See? The department has nothing to hide.

[Thanks to Fire Tiger for the tip.]