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Belleville residents call for firing of veteran police officer over Confederate flag controversy

A veteran Belleville police officer is facing calls to be fired after social media posts surfaced that show him wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt and expressing support for the Confederacy.

Const. Todd Bennett called U.S. Civil War rebel symbol 'the real Independence Day flag'

Const. Todd Bennett, a 21-year-veteran with the Belleville Police Service, is seen riding in the passenger seat of a golf cart with a Confederate flag attached. (Facebook via Katie MacLeod)

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  • Const. Todd Bennett has apologized for the social media post, calling it "poor judgement."

The Belleville Police Service is facing pressure to fire a veteran officer shown in social media posts wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt and expressing support for the Confederacy, a group of Southern U.S. states that fought against the other states in the U.S. Civil War.

Const. Todd Bennett, who has been a police officer for over 20 years, posted a photo to his Facebook page last year showing him at a U.S. Independence Day celebration on July 4 wearing a white T-shirt with the rebel flag on it. In a comment accompanying the post, Bennet called it "the real Independence Day flag" and said "The South will rise again! Trump 2020."

Another photo from 2015 shows Bennett riding in a golf cart with a large Confederate flag attached to the back of the vehicle.

The flag, flown during the American Civil War by the Confederates, who fought in part to preserve the institution of slavery, is widely seen today as a symbol of racism and white supremacy.

An online petition calling for Bennett to be fired had garnered 9,000 signatures as of Friday morning.

In this screenshot, Belleville, Ont., police officer Todd Bennett is pictured wearing a T-shirt with the Confederate battle flag pictured. On the right is a comment thread attached to the post. (Katie MacLeod/Facebook)

"You can't hold such strong views about what the Confederate flag stands for and hold a job that is meant to support, protect and serve the community," Belleville, Ont., resident Sydney Jarvis said in an interview with CBC Radio's Ontario Morning.

Jarvis, a person of colour, is organizing an event called Vigil for Black Lives in Belleville on Sunday, in solidarity with those who have been affected by racism and police brutality.

Jarvis said while she sees Bennett's behaviour as an isolated incident and believes that people can change, she thinks the officer deserves to be reprimanded.

 

Bennett has since taken the post down and apologized, the Belleville Police Service said in a tweet on Wednesday.

The officer said the image was meant as a joke.  

"It was absolutely not meant to be any kind of political or racist statement," Bennett wrote in an emailed statement.

"The matter was raised with my employer a year ago and addressed. Now more than ever, I am aware of why such symbols and comments are hurtful, inappropriate and offensive. I had committed to my force over a year ago to do better and have adhered to that."

The officer said posting the image was "poor judgement" and apologized to anyone hurt by his actions. He also apologized if his Facebook post sowed doubt about whether Belleville residents can trust local police. 

"I stand in solidarity with those from all walks of life who are working to drive change and progress. We all have a role to play in eradicating racism and building safe, equitable and healthy communities," he wrote. 

'Isolated post': police chief

Belleville police Chief Ron Gignac issued a statement saying that Bennett's actions shouldn't tarnish the good work Belleville police officers do.

"One isolated post from 47 weeks ago does not represent the hundreds of thousands of events and instances where Belleville police officers have kept this community safe over the past year," Gignac said. "We work tirelessly to serve with distinction to keep this community safe."

Gignac said he can't comment on the specifics of Bennett's case, and said "the matter in question is dealt with according to the legal frameworks that I have to abide within and by." 

Belleville Mayor Mitch Panciuk, who is also a member of the city's police board, told Ontario Morning that the board will review the action taken by the police chief.

"It's a very disappointing situation for all of us," Panciuk said. "We're going to continue to work to make sure everyone not just is welcome but is able to live a life of equality."

 

Belleville residents took to Twitter to express their frustration, with many saying Gignac's statement did not go far enough.

In a post accompanying the online petition, Lorraine Postma said this is not an isolated incident.

"This is not enough ... This is not just one bad apple," Postma wrote. "The community of Belleville is calling for a thorough and independent investigation of this police officer's behaviour."

For Jarvis, the episode is a painful example of the inequalities people of colour face every day.

"It just reminds me that it's still a struggle for people of colour to live normal lives," she said. "It's a reminder that there are people out there that still think our lives aren't as relevant or important as theirs."

Clarifications

  • A previous version of this story stated Const. Bennett was a police officer for 29 years. According to Bennett, however, he has worked as a police officer for a little over 20 years.
    Jun 06, 2020 12:03 PM ET

About the Author

Ryan has chased stories for CBC News across the country in Toronto, Vancouver, Yellowknife and Ottawa, filing for web, radio and TV. You can reach him by email at ryan.jones@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @helloryanjones.

With files from CBC's Laura Howells and Ontario Morning

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