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Officer Robert Fox received the most serious discipline possible after comments made under the handle 'pilgrims-progress'

By Brennan David
Columbia Daily Tribune

COLUMBIA, Mo. — A Columbia police officer yesterday received the most serious discipline allowed within the department after the conclusion of a month-and-a-half-long internal investigation into improper Internet comments.

Officer Robert Fox was penalized for posting information related to the juvenile record of a protester who was photographed and quoted in a May 16 Tribune news story. The penalty for violating his duty to safeguard information was 120 hours without pay, the complainant, Columbia resident Greg Williams, told the Tribune after he met with Fox and police administrators yesterday.

Williams, 24, was photographed holding a sign that said "Stop Brutality" on May 15 while protesting in front of the Walnut Street post office against a Feb. 11 SWAT raid. Fox commented about Williams below the story on the Tribune's website. Fox's comment later was removed because it violated the Tribune's commenting policy.

"He was investigated for releasing information that should not have been," Columbia police spokeswoman Officer Jessie Haden said. "The investigation sustained the complaint, and he received the most serious discipline allowable without him losing his job. The investigation into that has concluded. The complainant met with the officer and the chief, and we were able to extend our apology as well as discuss the matter."

Although Haden did not identify the officer by name or specify the penalty, Williams confirmed both.

Fox is a member of the six-man SWAT unit that entered the southwest Columbia home of Jonathan Whitworth in February.

Williams, with his pit bull, was protesting the death of a pit bull and injuries to another dog as a result of the raid.

Fox responded to a previous posting that said, "Seeing the people of Columbia stand up to this totally unacceptable police brutality refreshes my pride in America."

"Hahahahahah!!!!!!!!!!!!!" Fox responded. "The guy with the 'stop the brutality' sign has multiple convictions for assaulting people with guns!!! I'd like him to stop the brutality of humans!

"Your case has never had any solid basis other than you didn't like seeing what's required to police Columbia and you want weed to be legal. The majority of the people in Columbia don't care enough to comment, go to a meeting or protest at the post office. You're all irrelevant. We need to move on."

A commenter later wrote back to Fox, "Greg Williams in the picture, can file a defamation of character and slander against you ... so maybe a retraction should be in order."

Fox responded by posting, "It ain't slander if it's true. It is."

Williams said yesterday that he learned of the incident when his sister contacted him about the posting. He later took a printed version to the police department's internal affairs unit, which immediately launched an investigation.

The Tribune did not have a role in revealing the identity of Fox, who commented using the handle "pilgrims-progress."

"I didn't know it was a cop until today," Williams said. "I was just suspicious."

Williams said he was suspicious because it is his understanding, along with that of his attorney, that his juvenile record could not be accessed by any ordinary person, and so a law enforcement official must have been responsible.

He said he is satisfied with the meeting he had yesterday with Chief Ken Burton, Deputy Chief Tom Dresner and Fox, and he thought Fox's apology was "more than sincere."

"I don't want to see anyone lose their job over it ... I still feel the punishment was harsh. I don't want to see his family suffer for it," Williams said. "But it should be made up to me as well. I am still considering civil action."

Fox is the recipient of a Meritorious Service Ribbon in 2008 for a lifesaving effort at a Columbia hotel.

The department has had several discussions internally to stress the difference between news reporting and commenters or bloggers, Haden said. Officers should focus on the reporter's news story and not other commenters.

"We will defend our officers when they act appropriately publicly, but not on blogs," she said. "The blogs are the bloggers' playground, and we're not going to hold court there."