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Lansing — The embattled director of the Michigan State Police could face internal discipline after sharing a social media post ridiculing “degenerate” football players for silent protests during the national anthem.

The department is investigating whether Col. Kristie Kibbey Etue violated an internal social media policy, spokeswoman Shanon Banner confirmed in an email to The Detroit News. Possible sanctions range from a written reprimand to a five-day suspension.

“The Colonel will be treated no differently than other MSP employees,” Banner said. “There is a formal internal investigative process that is followed in all cases, and this process is currently underway.”

Etue has come under fire for a meme she shared Sunday on her personal Facebook page. The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and the Michigan Black Legislative Caucus are among those calling on Gov. Rick Snyder to fire her if she does not resign.

Snyder has stood by Etue after she publicly apologized for sharing a meme that blasted “millionaire ingrates who hate America and disrespect our armed forces and veterans” by protesting during the national anthem. Etue is an “outstanding public servant” who made a mistake, a Snyder spokesperson said.

Supporters say Etue had a First Amendment right to speak out, but critics have questioned Etue’s objectivity and understanding of what many players — primarily African-Americans — are calling symbolic protests against racial oppression and police brutality.

Official state police policy allows troopers to freely express themselves on social media as private citizens unless their posts “impair working relationships, impede the performance of duties, impair discipline and harmony among co-workers, or negatively affect the public perception of the department.”

There is also the possibility that Etue could run afoul of another part of the social media policy, especially if the colonel’s Facebook shared post is brought up in a lawsuit or other legal proceeding.

“Postings that demonstrate a failure to exercise good judgment or a lack of personal accountability that are used to impeach a member or which discredits the department or another member in an official proceeding, or while the member is under oath, shall result in discipline,” according to the state police policy.

Banner did not provide a timeline completing the internal probe of Etue’s post but said “this investigation should not be overly complicated.”

U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, said Thursday called Etue’s posts was “unbefitting an officer of the state of Michigan” and raises “practical concerns about her ability to enforce the laws of our state and country.”

Dems, Republicans divided

Democrats and Republicans running for 2018 party nominations to replace Snyder are divided over whether Etue should remain on the job.

While Snyder has said he will not seek her resignation, most Democratic candidates for governor say she’d already be out as director if they were in charge.

Republicans are generally defending Etue after her public apology, and some are criticizing the NFL players for their chosen form of protest.

Former Detroit health department director Abdul El-Sayed has been one of Etue’s most vocal critics since she shared the meme criticizing NFL players.

El-Sayed blasted Etue late Tuesday after news of her post broke. Then he penned an open letter to Snyder on Wednesday morning urging him to fire her and said his decision to stand by her shows “he doesn’t have what it takes” to lead the state.

Former state Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer, the early front runner for the Democratic nomination, was slower to respond. She did not immediately address the controversy but, in response to an inquiry from The Detroit News, on Thursday evening renounced the Etue post as “divisive and deeply troubling.”

“As governor, I will not accept anyone in my administration who demonstrates this level of disrespect for Michiganders, including those exercising their civil rights,” Whitmer said in a statement. “Such language, and the divisive rhetoric of Donald Trump, divides us when we must come together to address the serious and urgent challenges we face in Michigan.”

Whitmer’s campaign did not elaborate when asked if she thinks Snyder should act now to remove Etue.

“You would like to see more” out of Whitmer, said Detroit political consultant and 910 AM radio host Steve Hood, who argued that Democratic candidates expecting support from minority voters need to unequivocally call for Etue’s job. “She needs to turn it up to turn up votes in Detroit.”

Whitmer is leading early polls for the Democratic nomination but has not polled as well in Detroit as some other parts of the state.

“I think that as the Democratic front runner, she’s playing it safe,” said Susan Demas, owner and editor of the Inside Michigan Politics newsletter. “Taking on the head of the state police is a tricky position for a Democrat to take, because that’s probably going to alienate swing voters.”

Hood also criticized Thursday’s joint statement by Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and Wayne County Executive Warren Evans, calling it “tepid” because it stopped short of calling for Etue’s resignation.

Etue’s post came less than a month after the death of Damon Grimes, a 15-year-old who was shot with a Taser by a state police trooper while driving an all-terrain vehicle illegally on the road and refusing an order to stop.

“This coming on the heels of Damon Grimes, it deserves a stronger response,” Hood said.

Racial issues preview

Attorney General Bill Schuette, the early front runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, declined to say how he would address the Etue controversy if governor. A spokesperson indicated he would not discuss the hypothetical situation.

“I think that is a decision for Gov. Snyder and Colonel Etue to work through together,” Schuette said.

“Men and women have died for our country, and so I stand and place one hand over my heart to honor their sacrifices and to salute the greatest nation on the face of the Earth. I think that sends an important message of unity to the whole world.”

State Sen. Pat Colbeck of Canton Township, a tea party favorite seeking the GOP nomination for governor, on Thursday called Etue a woman of “honor and integrity” and said her post was done in that same spirit.

He criticized players for protesting during the National Anthem, calling it a “symbol of our unity.”

Saginaw obstetrician Jim Hines said he would have accepted Etue’s apology and kept her on the job “because of her long career of outstanding public service.”

“I personally believe that NFL players, coaches and owners should find a different way to protest other than disrespecting our flag and country,” he said.

The Republican positions are not surprising, Demas said. President Donald Trump has blasted the NFL players over their protests, and public opinion polls show a majority of voters would prefer players stand during the national anthem.

The political divide over Etue’s post is “a preview that this race is going to have more racial issues than we’ve seen in Michigan gubernatorial races in a while,” Demas said.

Other Democratic candidate diverged on Etue. Bill Cobbs, a former Xerox executive who also served as a Detroit police officer and in the U.S. Navy, said he does not feel “threatened or disrespected” by NFL players who take a knee during the National Anthem.

Etue’s post could strain delicate relationships between police and citizens, he said, and troopers who work for her could feel empowered to follow her lead by expressing similar views.

Her shared post was “totally tone deaf, and if she were working for me, she would no longer be director,” Cobbs said. “We have to set higher standards for leaders than just popping off.”

Democrat Shri Thanedar, an Ann Arbor entrepreneur, said the meme Etue shared “shows a disturbing lack of empathy for the plight of people she and her troopers have sworn to serve and protect.”

But Thanedar said he would accept Etue’s apology, expressing hope State Police will marshal efforts into improving police-community relations, an issue he intends to put “front and center” in his campaign.

joosting@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3662

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