A Roswell police sergeant who was fired from her job this month for flying the Confederate battle flag in front of her house is appealing her termination and said Tuesday she had no idea the flag was controversial.
In an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, former police sergeant Silvia Cotriss said she had been flying the battle flag below the American flag in front of her Woodstock house for more than a year with no complaints from neighbors or passersby. So she was surprised the week of July 11, when detectives with the department's internal affairs division notified her that she was being investigated for conduct unbecoming an officer on or off duty.
“If I knew it offended someone, my friends, my family, I wouldn’t do it,” Cotriss told the AJC. “Police officers have to adjust a lot of things in our lives, and for 20 years my whole life has been about making change and being held to a higher standard. We take an oath to help and protect people, so we can’t have a private life that’s really bad.”
Roswell Police Chief Rusty Grant declined Tuesday to comment on the case.
“We don’t comment on personnel issues,” Grant said. “The (personnel) file stands as it is.”
At least one First Amendment attorney, however, said the firing could be a case of overreach in reaction to recent police shootings of African-Americans and massacres of police in Texas and Louisiana.
Cotriss’ case file, obtained by the AJC, outlines the case of the 53-year-old, 20-year veteran of the Roswell Police Department. Cotriss rose through the ranks in the suburban force of 200 employees. For years she received commendations for her work from civilians, peers and supervisors, for everything from helping a man with dementia get home to his wife, to helping someone whose car battery had died.
In 2014, however, she was investigated and suspended without pay for three days for “failure to take appropriate action” after being told that another officer had failed to properly respond to a police call.
A complaint is lodged
On July 11, her career trajectory took a different turn. That morning, a man who lives nearby was driving his daughter and son to pre-school and noticed a Confederate flag in Cotriss’ yard. It is unclear whether he knew Cotriss, but the man said in an email to Grant that, “It is very difficult to explain to my daughter that we should trust our police. But in the same sentiment if I were to ever be pulled over or some situation where my family needs the police to protect and serve, my first thought/fear is that it may be the officer proudly flying his/her Confederate flag.”
The man claimed Cotriss’ police vehicle was in the driveway, a charge Cotriss denies.
The day before the man had attended Eagle's Nest Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in Roswell, where Grant and the entire Roswell police force had been invited to worship in the aftermath of the Dallas police massacre. Pastor Lee Jenkins extended the invitation and Grant said, in a previous interview, that he accepted because, "For me the takeaway from (the protests in) Ferguson was that a lot of African-Americans don't trust police officers and don't see them as I did when I was growing up."
And since the unrest in Ferguson, after the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, Grant had been visiting several churches in the Roswell area to build bridges. Grant was the only police official to attend the Eagle's Nest service and Jenkins said after the chief addressed the congregation, they gave him a standing ovation.
The man who lodged the complaint against Cotriss referenced the service in his email to Grant and in an email to Jenkins.
Discrepancy over police car
Cotriss said she and her husband, who died recently, had gotten a battle flag in May 2015 during a vacation to Panama City, Fla., for “Thunder Beach,” a popular biker festival. The battle flag had a motorcycle in the center, and Cotriss flew it beneath the American flag on a towering pole in her front yard. Over time the Confederate emblem became tattered and she recently asked a friend to take it down, she said. A neighbor offered her a new one, without a motorcycle, and her friend accepted it for her.
Cotriss said when investigators told her about the complaint she removed the flag. On Tuesday, neither flag was flying outside her home. But during an interview with detectives, according to the investigative report, the detectives asked her “why she would have or allow the Confederate flag to be flown, especially in today’s environment.”
“Cotriss explained that the flag was part of her history, part of the South, part of history involving the Civil War. She denied having negative feelings regarding the flag,” according to the report.
And when the detectives told her that the flag had been a symbol used by Dylann Roof, who executed nine African-American church worshippers in Charleston, S.C., according to the report she said she was "not aware of its relation to the shooting.
“Cotriss was asked as a police officer, how could she not have known about the Confederate flag and its negative connotations,” according to the report. “She said that she was unaware until the investigator brought it to her attention.”
Cotriss, who had recently been on medical leave, said that while the flag was in her yard, her police vehicle wasn’t. She said it had been at the department having a new radio installed.
Police would not comment on the discrepancy this week.
‘Cops don’t watch the news’
Cotriss told the AJC she had no idea that the flag was offensive to some people, despite the fact that the debate swirling around the flag has been in the news for more than a year.
“Cops don’t watch the news because we live it in the day and don’t want to see it again at night,” Cotriss said.
She said she has worked with officers who’ve been Civil War re-enactors. But she said she did not want the flag to cause people to mistrust her as an officer. In its termination of the sergeant, Capt. Helen Dunkin of the internal affairs office wrote Cotriss had “engaged in conduct that was unbecoming, which brought discredit to the Roswell Police Department when she flew” the flag in her yard.
Just four days after the initial complaint, Cotriss was fired. She is appealing the firing.
Firing an overreaction?
Cynthia Counts, an Atlanta First Amendment attorney, said while it was Cotriss’ right to fly the flag, there is legal precedent for police to be disciplined for displaying it.
Just two years ago, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Story found the demotion of a Clayton State University deputy chief was not in violation of the First Amendment. The deputy chief posted a Confederate battle flag to his Facebook page. In his opinion, Story wrote that the display of the flag had the potential to harm the department’s reputation, and that police have “more specialized concerns than a normal government office.”
The recent police shootings and ambushes of law enforcement officers may have caused the Roswell Department to overreact, Counts said, especially if Cotriss was not given a warning or if the department’s code of conduct was not more specific.
“Was it an overreaction to the climate?” Counts said. “It’s a close call.”
Of Cotriss’ claim she knew nothing of the flag’s other connotations, Counts said she found that odd. She also said it could be a reflection on the department.
“If anything, that shows they need to do some more sensitivity training,” Counts said.
Bringing opposites together
Jenkins, the pastor of Eagle’s Nest, said he would be willing to meet with the officer to talk about the flag incident in an effort to build a bridge during a time of strained race relations.
“Dialogue is a good thing,” Jenkins said. “One of the problems in America today is you have people who are polar opposites. The only way to bring two polar opposites together is through dialogue.”
The former sergeant said she’d be willing to meet with the pastor and his congregation as well.
“If it offends the church, we want to work with them,” Cotriss said. “That’s what we’re all striving for is peace and unity.”
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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com