A Georgia TV station broke national news on its Facebook page earlier this month: The three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery had been sentenced to life in prison.
A local law enforcement officer took to the comments section to condemn not the men convicted of murder but the man they’d killed.
“That criminal Arbery still got the death penalty though,” Paul Urhahn wrote.
A firestorm erupted and has raged for nearly two weeks. Urhahn was quickly identified as a deputy with the Houston County Sheriff’s Office in Georgia. Scores of social media users howled for him to be fired. The local TV station that published the original Facebook post has aired multiple stories about the growing controversy.
Three days after Urhahn posted his comment, which he ultimately deleted, his boss, Sheriff Cullen Talton, suspended the 20-year veteran without pay. The longtime sheriff told Urhahn via letter that he planned to fire him at the end of a 10-day period in which Urhahn could appeal the decision.
In the letter, Talton said he had determined Urhahn violated sheriff’s office policies, including those forbidding deputies to do anything — on or off duty — that could “destroy public respect for employees and confidence in the department.”
“Something like this will affect my department tremendously,” Talton told WGXA in an interview, adding that he thinks Urhahn’s Facebook comment was rooted in prejudice.
“I don’t put up with racism in my department, and to me, that was a racist remark,” he said.
Urhahn denied there were any “racial undertones” to his comment during an internal affairs interview, according to documents published by WGXA. During that interview, Urhahn mentioned that Arbery had a criminal record, which included theft and bringing a gun onto school property.
“By definition, that made him a criminal,” Urhahn said, according to the report.
Urhahn told his interviewer that he wrote the “death penalty” comment because Facebook had previously flagged his account when he used words like “kill” and “murder” in posts unrelated to Arbery, the report said. So, he told the interviewer, he eventually settled on “death penalty.”
“Urhahn had never seen FaceBook flag those words when used together,” the report said.
Urhahn didn’t fight his impending termination. On Sunday, he handed in a letter of resignation, which took effect Wednesday. While Urhahn didn’t appeal his firing, he defended himself to Talton.
In the resignation letter, Urhahn told the sheriff he made the comment about Arbery while he was off duty and “exercising my Constitutional Right to Free Speech,” resulting in “a very unfortunate series of events.” Urhahn criticized the way the sheriff’s office handled the fallout. While he didn’t specify how it had fallen short, Urhahn said those missteps made working there untenable.
“After deep consideration, I cannot continue as a member of this team and organization,” he wrote in the letter to Talton. “To continue to do so would be against who I am and what I believe in.”
The sheriff didn’t seem disappointed by the resignation when interviewed by WGXA. Talton said he had forwarded Urhahn’s disciplinary records to the Georgia Peace Officer Standards and Training Council, the statewide agency that sets training standards and certifies law enforcement officers.
“They can take his credentials away. And I don’t know what they’ll do, but it’s in their hands now,” Talton told the TV station.
If it were up to him, though, Talton said, Urhahn would be stripped of his badge: “Personally, I don’t think he needs to be in law enforcement.”
In February 2020, Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was jogging through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Ga. — about 150 miles from Houston County — when three men chased him in pickup trucks for about five minutes and one killed him with a shotgun. The murder sparked nationwide outrage and protests months later when the video of the shooting leaked online.
On Jan. 7, those men — Travis McMichael, his father, Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan — were sentenced to life in prison for killing Arbery, with the McMichaels being denied the possibility of parole.
All three men face federal hate-crime charges at a trial expected to begin next month.