Dozens of boats floated around Oneida Lake on Sunday showing support for President Trump. Members of the Oswego County Sheriff’s Office joined the parade while patrolling the flotilla.
The sheriff’s office said in a statement: “This flag was flown to show support of the citizens who were attending this event and to show recognition to the President of the United States for his constant support for law enforcement.”
State and federal laws prohibit law enforcement from political endorsements while on the clock.
“There’s no question that government officials have First Amendment rights like everybody else, but when you’re on duty, when you’re in the office, or in this case out on the water, it does raise questions over the independence of the system,” said Roy Gutterman, the director of Syracuse University’s Tully Center for Free Speech.
The flag on the sheriff’s boat has Trump’s picture on an American flag. At the bottom, it says “Making America Great Again.”
Flying a political flag violates county policy, according to Oswego County legislature chairman James Weatherup. He said this sort of activity on county time with county-owned equipment will not happen again.
“I have spoken to the Sheriff, and expressed our position about our flag policy, and our desire to not see this type of display in the future from his office (or any other) on taxpayer time or taxpayer equipment,” said Chairman Weatherup in a statement. “I am confident that we will not see this type of action in the future.”
It was an inappropriate time to take a stand, according to a legal expert.
“It could be any endorsement of any political movement and that would be inappropriate for any government official,” said Gutterman. “You need to leave your politics at the door when you put on a uniform.”
The federal Hatch Act applies to most local law enforcement, according to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. It limits political activities to keep work non-partisan.
There are similar provisions under New York State’s civil service laws.
The DA’s Office is not in a position to offer public comment at this time, Oswego County District Attorney Greg Oakes said in an email.