Distraught by the riots that followed the George Floyd incident and how it affected her family, Hopewell officer Sara Erwin posted a message on Facebook that rippled through her life and that of fellow officer Mandy Grey, who supported her. Now, empowered by the support of PBA and renowned attorney Frank Crivelli, these two officers share how they are fighting back against a biased township committee in hopes that they will eventually get justice.
Images of law enforcement officers catching the brunt of harm’s way flashed across the television screen in Sara Erwin’s family room as she watched with her husband and two young sons. Following the shock of the George Floyd incident, they saw rioters hurl insults, spit, bottles and other projectiles at cops detailed in Minneapolis, Portland, New York, Chicago and other cities throughout the country where protests exploded.
In a couple of hours, Erwin would have to leave for her midnight tour with the Hopewell Police Department. But now the horror in her boys’ faces shouted loud and clear.
“Mommy, don’t go to work tonight.”
Hopewell is a stone’s throw from Trenton where protests in the streets had been growing. According to a new Mercer County directive, there was a good chance that Hopewell officers would be assigned to riot control. Erwin might be called on to do so. Somebody from Hopewell Local 342 working midnights most certainly would.
As she dressed alongside her good friend in the department locker room that night, Hopewell Sergeant Mandy Grey chatted with Erwin like she did every night before coming on. Just to get a feel for what’s going on. Like a good supervisor does. But Grey noticed something amiss in her longtime friend.
“I could tell she was not herself,” Grey recalled. “And she told me how the kids were so upset when she was leaving for work that night.”
The intensity and emotion of the night accelerated to more than 100 heartbeats per minute. One of the officers on the shift – the most senior member who had the most tactical expertise – was assigned to Trenton. Grey and Erwin tried to track his whereabouts and his safety. Erwin was bombarded with calls, emails, texts and posts from family members and close friends asking if she was OK.
When the tour finally ended, Erwin wanted to let everybody know she made it home safe. Post something on her private Facebook page, she thought, where her security measures only let in family and a few friends. Wired from work and still reeling from the look on the boys’ faces, Erwin posted a reply that read in part:
Just checking in to say thank you to those that reached out to make sure I and my coworkers were doing ok as we worked the night shift…
I’ve been quiet regarding the protests because quite frankly I couldn’t find the right words…
Last night as I left for work I had my 2 kids crying for me not to go to work. I don’t think I’ve ever felt the way I did last night. And then I watched people I know and others I care about going into harms way…
So when you share posts and things on Facebook I’d really appreciate if you’d THINK before doing so. I’ve seen so many black lives matter hashtags in these posts. Just to let you know- they are terrorists. They hate me. They hate my uniform. They don’t care if I die…
This post – on a private page available to approximately 200 family members and friends under the derivative name ‘Sara Elizabeth” – caused Sara Erwin to be terminated in May 2021. In support of her friend and an officer on her squad, Grey hearted the post. She was suspended without pay for six months and demoted.
Erwin and Grey were subjected to what they and their attorney, Frank Crivelli, described as a professional assault with deadly intent. They were initially charged with a violation of the department’s social media policy and suspended with pay but never told what constituted the violation. According to Crivelli, they were blindsided in the IA investigation, judged before a biased hearing officer and handed their fate by a township committee apparently motivated by the radical left.
“This has escalated to this point because of the prominence of the cancel culture, the vogue attitude of politicians and the anti-police animus that’s out there,” Crivelli charged. “We have proof that the township committee put undue influence and pressure on people to terminate and demote them. I think it was the politicians pandering to the left. And when I say the left, meaning the liberal left.”
Sara Erwin has served as a D.A.R.E. officer since starting with the Hopewell Police Department in 2001.
Erwin tuned into TV news coverage of the Floyd aftermath because she always tried to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world for its effect on the job. It’s the nature of law enforcement officers to think about everything that might come into play when they prepare for their tours.
Her kids probably saw a bit too much of it. She knew because moms know when their children are crying over normal stuff and crying when something is bad.
“It’s the first time they were really affected by my leaving for work, and it made me feel bad,” Erwin confided. “And that was the premise of the post. It was the emotion with my kids, but at the same time, the emotion of while we’re at work and being worried about other people.”
The other people included the officer Grey assigned to Trenton who had been her FTO. She called him a big brother to her and Erwin. He went to the academy in Trenton, so he knew his way around the city.
But Grey had to send him in alone. Neither she nor Erwin liked the idea of somebody going in by himself. “And Sarah was kind of upset about that, worrying about him,” Grey shared.
This was the first time Hopewell had to act on the new countywide protocol for mutual aid. “It was one of those nights where we were just like, ‘Oh my God. Shit’s getting real,’” Grey added.
Erwin continued to receive a barrage of messages via voicemail, text and messenger. She couldn’t answer because she was working. Family and friends were also watching TV reports, and as the 12-hour shift progressed, the inquiries about Erwin’s wellbeing grew more desperate.
She explained how stressed and tired she was. Too tired to start calling and texting. So her private page open to her family, most of whom are in New Hampshire, and a few close friends provided the needed connection. Just a post a message on there on her private page and go to bed.
“I knew her emotional and mental state, where she was coming from when she decided to post,” Grey confirmed. “Showing her my love and support, I hearted on it. And the rest is history.”
Social (Media) Justice
From left, Mandy Grey, Frank Crivelli and Sara Erwin appear on “Fox and Friends First” on the Fox News Network.
“Listen to this,” Fox and Friends First host Carley Shimkus began her interview on the May 5 edition of the Fox News Channel with Erwin, Grey and Crivelli. The incredulousness of the refrain has made the rounds on several national news shows, including the Ingraham Angle on Fox News, Newsmax and even the UK’s “Sky News.” Bill Spadea has also devoted segments of his top-rated morning drive show on New Jersey 101.5 to story.
Erwin and Grey are making national and international news because of what’s at stake. NJSPBA President Pat Colligan presented the gravity of the situation when appearing with Spadea and on social media, and he expounded on those words by explaining what happens when you don’t honor due process and somebody’s civil rights.
“The day that due process is in danger in this country is the day that this country is in danger,” Colligan announced. “And the thing they’re losing sight of is, what candidate doesn’t Google the town when they’re looking for a job? And what candidate isn’t going to see this shit-show. It’s an embarrassment to the town.”
Crivelli shares the sentiment that handing out discipline this capriciously will take a huge toll on the number of qualified candidates looking to become law enforcement officers. Others might be looking to retire or resign as a result. They already are.
That’s one reason why the case has such national prominence. And as he makes the case, Crivelli has another reason to fight and help as many officers as possible.
“It’s not going to be the first social media case, nor is it going to be the first First Amendment case involving public employees,” he observed. “But I do think it’s a case that’s very, very important for society to latch onto and realize and recognize not only the importance of the profession but realize that those individuals who put that uniform on are human beings as well, and you can’t treat them differently, which is the way they are being treated.”
When Crivelli started on the case, Grey joked about whether he was ready to make case law. But it’s not a laughing matter. If judgements like this are allowed and upheld, it’s going to be open season on the police across the country.
Grey and Erwin are not about to let that happen.
“We have to fight this for the cops, not just in our department or in our state, but countrywide,” Grey submitted. “And this is the thing that the committee didn’t take into account. I’ve had to fight my entire career as the first female officer in that place. So I’m used to fighting and I’m not afraid to fight.”
Erwin seconds that emotion.
“I don’t feel it’s right that we get caught in the crosshairs with this cancel culture. I hate using that, but that’s what it is,” she articulated. “I hope that this goes the right way, and that it sets precedence for other officers that you can’t just come in and trample over us just because you don’t like something we say or something it doesn’t align with your political belief or religious belief. It’s going to be a long flight, but I’m not afraid of it.”
Mandy Grey accepts a “Heart of Caring” award given to the Hopewell Police Department.
About a week after the post, Grey and Erwin came in at the end of their shift. An anonymous letter had been sent to the township about the post, and Grey was called into the chief’s office.
She never had a single incident of discipline in her 20-plus years. She was the chief’s go-to person on all community relations matters. So when they asked her to surrender her gun, badge and ID, Grey’s response was “for what?”
They never told her. They charged her with violating the department’s social media policy and told her she would be locked out of the building. They did not tell her how she violated, and only that an IA investigation was underway.
She came out of the office, saw Erwin and tried not to cry. Grey told Erwin she had been suspended but had no idea why. Then, they called Erwin into the office and did the same thing to her.
“I was completely blindsided,” Erwin recalled. “I looked at the chief who hid behind his mask and just kept saying, ‘social media violation, social media violation.’ He never told me it was about my post. I demanded to know who my accuser was. He said, ‘Internal Affairs will reach out to you.’”
They were charged on July 7 and suspended with pay pending hearings. The hearings were held individually on Oct. 2 and Oct. 6 when the next evidence of questionable handling of the case surfaced.
The hearing officer was an attorney hired by the township who was opposing Crivelli on another litigation. He asked the hearing officer to recuse himself. He asked the township to have him recused. He was not.
Crivelli argued the law of the Substantial Truth Doctrine, that the statements Erwin and Grey made were substantially true and they could not be punished for them. He argued that it was a direct violation of their First Amendment rights.
The hearing officer rendered his decision on Feb. 22, 2021, but it was not final at the department level. His decision went to the township committee which heard arguments as well. Crivelli added to the case that under the Attorney General’s Guidelines, the township did not have the authority to discipline officers. And he also made an argument citing progressive discipline, stating that because neither officer had received a single complaint in 20 years, even if they were guilty, it didn’t rise to the level of major discipline.
That would be the logical conclusion, only logic does not seem to apply to this case. Crivelli shared that in addition to the social media policy violation, the township committee drafted a whole host of charges. The committee did this, not the chief.
As for the question whether this is appropriate discipline, well, Crivelli dug deeper into that.
“There were three police professionals who offered their opinion as to that,” Crivelli detailed. “Number one, the acting chief. Number two, the township hired a police consultant. And in addition to that, the police director. They all stated that it should nothing more than minor discipline if that to include written reprimands and maybe some training.”
Because Hopewell is not a Civil Service department the case now goes to superior court where they are awaiting trial, hopefully a jury trial. Crivelli field a motion to consolidate the cases, and a civil suit on behalf of the two officers will also be part of the action. The discovery process will be underway soon, and Crivelli expects some information to come out that will lead to a favorable conclusion.
“In court, we will get more of an objective handling, and if they follow the law, these two officers are going to be vindicated,” he added. “They’re going to be put back to work, and, as far as the civil damages go, I think we’re going to be successful with that as well.”
Social (Media) Justice For All
Sara Erwin with her husband and two sons.
As he has represented and fought for these amazing officers, Crivelli has watched how the Erwin and Grey and their families have been devastated. But they are also angry. And a lot of people fighting for them are angry as well.
After all, how could this be done to two beyond-exemplary public servants. Erwin has been a D.A.R.E. officer since she came on in Hopewell in 2001. She was a police explorer at 16. If you want to feel dedication and devotion, scroll through the Hopewell PD Facebook page and see the plethora of photos showing Erwin with students.
She also loves the opportunity to respond to a group home in Hopewell. For the kids without a mom or a dad, she is an officer who sees life from their perspective. For them, Erwin puts the hope in Hopewell.
“She is the calming force on the calls when the emotions are high,” Grey says about Erwin. “I’ve always prided myself on being that way, too.”
Grey is also a school resource officer. She started the care program in town to help deal with opioid addiction. She has ridden the Police Unity Tour three times. With the ride cancelled last year, she climbed Mount Kilimanjaro to raise $10,000 for Special Olympics.
She has also been mentoring a black girl she met when she first came on in 1999. Grey calls this woman her sister.
“The first thing I thought of when this all happened was if she was going to be offended by all of this,” Grey disclosed.
So you get the anger.
“Somebody has an agenda, and it has turned into a witch hunt,” Erwin exclaimed. “And it’s not OK. I’m not a racist and I’m not going to have my name labeled that way. They’ve destroyed my good name.”
The natural inclination to respond would lead to posting on social media. Erwin and Grey have not done that. But Colligan does not hold back when saying what everybody is wanting to post.
“It’s ironic that the left wants to impart their decision and their punishment before a trial even happens. And that’s exactly what happened. I call that communism,” the PBA president stated. “The thing that makes me nuts: She posted on a private Facebook page, so it’s just as an egregious case of abuse. Just let me add that this decision will cost the citizens of Hopewell at least hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions. When one person makes a decision and the community doesn’t, that’s what happens. That’s an important point.”
Grey might post sentiments articulating that it’s all political and it’s a shame the town is being run this way. She might vent that everything she has worked for has been destroyed. She had a good shot at making lieutenant. In November, she will go back on the job as a patrol officer.
So, yes, she is angry.
“I said to Frank from the beginning, ‘Listen, money’s nice, don’t get me wrong,’” she admitted “But I gave so much to that department and that’s what hurts me so bad.”
Always the peacemaker, always the rule-follower, Erwin would like some good to come out of this. Even now, she is asking for dialogue, a way to address how the township has divided and destroyed the department in her opinion.
Her anger is a cry for fairness and integrity.
“It seems like there was no justice at all in this situation,” she roared.
Keep Us Posted
Mandy Grey with members of the Mercer County team that rode the 2019 Police Unity Tour. She has made the Tour three times.
One night during the ordeal, the power went out in the Erwin house. Her oldest son, who battles a disability, was feeling a little anxiety. Erwin said to her son, “Here, count your coins. That will keep you busy.”
“And he comes in and he’s like, ‘I counted all my money and maybe I can help with the bills,’” Erwin revealed. “He must have heard what we were talking about. Tell me as a parent, how you just don’t lose it.”
Erwin’s husband made the sacrifice to be the stay-at-home dad. She provides the healthcare insurance and other benefits for the family. If you have a special needs child, you know how important that is. Even if you don’t, you know.
The family is obviously worried about how to make ends meet. Erwin knows her job now is being mom, the most important job of all just ahead of being a law enforcement officer. But she got into law enforcement because she loved the job, and it’s all taking a heavy toll.
“What did I do? Is this that bad? If you told me now a year ago that I’d be sitting here today, I wouldn’t have believed you because figuring I’m going to get, maybe a letter in my file and a couple of days off,” Ervin declared. “When I did my interview on Fox, I said the best way to describe it is it’s like the death of a loved one. They have taken everything from me.”
They day Grey was called into the chief’s office she went home in shock. She has been that way since.
Imagine being stripped of your gun and badge and kicked to the curb, your colleagues being told not to reach out to you because that’s how departments handle these things. She hopes they will all learn from this, that it can happen to them at any time. And she will have to go back in five months and work alongside them.
“I don’t know how I’m going to do it. To be honest, I don’t trust anybody,” Grey confessed. “At the beginning, I was like, ‘Am I this awful person they’re making me out to be?’ I honestly think the right outcome will be had in the end. It’s just getting to that point, and I’m forever changed. I’m never going to be the same person.”
The line from Erwin’s post not included at the start of this account reads:
I love my police family like my own….
If only the township committee understood how much that meant. Hopefully, the jury will.
The court of public opinion has already ruled in favor of Erwin and Gray. A few members of the department have been brave enough to text both officers, and their timing has been impeccable. Grey assures that those have come on the days they have needed them the most.
After the Fox interviews, Crivelli’s office was flooded with emails and cards form across the country offering support to his clients. The National Police Defense Foundation has come on board to offer assistance with living expenses. Local 342 is hosting a Back The Blue fundraiser on July 7 to generate more support. (See page 37 for details.)
The Hopewell police department has also been getting lots of phone calls. From what Grey has heard, it’s people blowing up the phones expressing outrage at what has happen and directing angry messages to the police director.
The fight from Local 342 and the NJ State PBA has also been penetrating to say the least. Erwin divulged how much that has meant to maintaining her mental health and wellness.
When all is said and won, however, Crivelli hopes a message ripples nationwide. He will go back on Fox News at that point, once again flanked by Grey and Erwin and extol:
“People and America need to wake up. I think there’s more people out there than one may think who have strong values and who value the rule of law and the way that people are supposed to act in a civil society. But they’re the silent majority and the reason why they’re the silent majority is because they live their lives as law-abiding citizens. However, the rest of those individuals that are out there in this country need to recognize, once again, and understand that the value of law and order in our society and the vital role that police play in that.”