WESTERVILLE, Ohio (WCMH) — Westerville’s city government said Wednesday that its Instagram account was accessed without authorization after the account liked a racist response to one of its posts.
The incident stems from a story that NBC4 reported Monday on Westerville civil rights attorney Emmanuel Olawale, who was questioned by police while disposing of trash outside his office Saturday afternoon. After providing a business card and driver’s license to prove his identity, Olawale, who is Black, requested that officers not run a check of his license and later told NBC4 that the encounter felt like racial profiling.
In response on Tuesday, Chief Chris Chandler said the three-minute interaction was “professional and polite” and that officers were following policy in recording Olawale’s information. Two posts on Westerville’s Instagram page discussed the incident, one showing a photo of Olawale with Officer Dan Ruth and another showing a clip of the interaction from a body-worn camera.
On the second post, one response read, “Officers just doing their job!! maybe they don’t do that back in Zimbabwe…dude is a drama queen!!!”
The response was initially liked by the city’s official Instagram account, but the like was later removed. A report has been filed with Westerville police, who are investigating.
“I think the comment was racist,” said Nana Watson, president of the Columbus branch of the NAACP. “I was disgusted and the individual who posted that, shame on them.”
A new post from the city offered an explanation:
“After several news and online posts drew national attention to our City, we believe the City of Westerville Instagram account was hacked and/or intentionally accessed. The hacker then ‘liked’ some controversial and troubling posts. The moment City officials discovered the hack, we changed the password, removed the ‘like’ designations on the posts and referred the hacker’s actions to the Westerville Division of Police for criminal investigation. We are continuing our investigation into all devices that had access to the account as well as adding additional securities on our account, which should prevent future hacks. Although we had a Virtual Private Network in place and a strong password, we apologize for this security breach.”
The like was noted by NBC4 and other Instagram users. Comments show some are not buying the explanation, with one response reading, “You can take away your likes of racist comments all you want, but screenshots live forever.”
Watson said she isn’t buying the city’s explanation, either.
“I suppose that they’ll say anything to get out of this predicament,” she said.
Watson said she plans on reaching out to city leaders.
Renee Thompson is the new executive director for WeRISE for Greater Westerville, a nonprofit organization working to get rid of racism.
“This doesn’t reflect who Westerville is,” she said. “I just hope the city continues. I think they’ve started on the right foot in terms of the investigation, and again, I hope the city finishes by completing that by holding the individual or individuals accountable.”
When asked for comment, Westerville Mayor Kathy Cocuzzi said the situation was under investigation and referred all requests to the city spokesperson.
Olawale, who has owned his own law firm since 2009, said he was a native of Nigeria in a guest column on Cleveland.com in 2020.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, the Capital City Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police said the officers’ actions were not influenced by Olawale’s race.
“Officers have a duty to keep the community safe, which includes businesses within, and they were doing their job,” the statement read in part. “The body-camera footage unequivocally exonerates the officers of any misconduct or racial bias.”