The case of Keyona Sykes, city custodian fired over a Facebook post

Andy Downing
adowning@columbusalive.com
Keyona Sykes

On June 30, Keyona Sykes, a part-time City of Columbus custodial employee, was working her normal rounds at police headquarters Downtown when she overheard officers discussing plans to monitor a protest expected to take place later that evening at The Old Bag of Nails Pub on Nelson Road. 

Shortly thereafter, Sykes logged into Facebook and dashed off a quick post on the public group Columbus Black Owned Businesses. “CPD has just been made aware of the protest scheduled for tonight,” she wrote. “I work in headquarters and just overheard them. They are already dispatching units. Be careful tonight.” Sykes ended the message with a “praying hands” emoji, signed out of her Facebook account and resumed her shift. As she worked, the post quickly spread, generating 85 shares and more than 100 comments, Sykes said, eventually attracting the attention of higher-ups within CPD, who approached her while she was in the break room later during her shift, sometime before 6 p.m.

“The door swings open … and this officer walks in, and she doesn’t introduce herself or tell me who she is. She just goes, ‘Sykes?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Come with me,’” Sykes said. “So we’re walking through the corridors and she tells me her superior wants to see me. We get to the room, and this woman, whose name I later learned was [Commander] Rhonda Grizzell, she comes out and she’s addressing me and, I feel, trying to intimidate me over the social media post. She said they had become aware of a post I’d made on Facebook, and that I’d put their officers at risk. And she said, ‘You are now a security concern.’”

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In a statement emailed in response to an inquiry fromAlive, a CPD spokesperson said, “Keyona Sykes was escorted from Columbus Police headquarters for disseminating sensitive/protected information discussed amongst officers in our Emergency Operations Center to the general public. She did this without authorization.”

Officers collected Sykes’ security badge and keys on-site and escorted her immediately from the building. A week later, on July 8, she was fired from her position with the city for what is labeled “a serious infraction of work rules” in her termination papers, a copy of which was obtained byAlive. Sykes was also given a “would not re-employ” designation, which cost her a prospective position with the Water Department for which she was recently interviewed. 

Sykes, who said she had worked at CPD headquarters for nearly three years in her role with Facilities Management, doesn’t dispute making the post, but she said CPD officials didn’t take its full context into account. She also questioned the severity of the punishment, believing that her actions on social media have been treated more harshly than other city employees, particularly CPD Deputy Chief Ken Kuebler, whose combativeTwitter posts are currently the subject of a city investigationaccording to an early August Dispatch report, but who remains on the job.

“There’s a double standard,” Sykes said. “I’ll be [honest], I haven’t attended any of the protests. Like I said, I work at the police building, so I’m not participating. However, these are all issues that affect me. I’m a Black woman, and I want a resolution, but I also don’t want people to be violated or mistreated because they want equality. So I posted what I’d heard to this group … but I didn’t think it was confidential information or anything inflammatory or incendiary, because anyone protesting in Columbus knows the police will be present. And I didn’t say, ‘Go and beat up a cop and be armed and dangerous’ or anything like that. I said, ‘Be safe.’ And maybe that was construed as if I was speaking only to the protesters, but I meant it for everyone.”

In addition, Sykes said CPD efforts to paint her as anti-police stretched beyond the post that led to her dismissal, with officers compiling cherry-picked posts from her public Facebook profile, which struck her as out of line. (Facilities Management employed Sykes, not CPD, so it was not her direct superiors engaged in the extra scrutiny.)

“Tonight we found some social media posts by the custodial worker who was on duty in our building,” Commander Grizzell wrote in a June 30 email obtained byAlive through a public records request. “I will follow up this email with another one with all of the screen shots from her social media.” 

The screenshots were taken and assembled by officer Russell Redman, who claimed in an email that the Facebook posts showed Sykes had “an anti-police ideology.” Included in these are: a post Sykes made remarking on the history of white residents calling the police on Black neighbors (“Should I start calling the police on unaccompanied white folks in my neighborhood?”); a comment on a video share about the current push for racial justice (“Be lucky we want equality and justice and not REVENGE,” Sykes wrote); and another video post in which she questioned the actions of a police officer who pulled a gun on a motorcyclist during a traffic stop in Washington state, actions for whichthe department later issued an apology. “We performing traffic stops like this???” Sykes wrote. “The fuck is wrong with these cops!!!”

Redman also included a photograph Sykes posted of Detective Bob Biehl, whom she termed a friend. In the photograph, Biehl poses wearing a T-shirt designed by Sykes that reads “ALLY” in block letters set above the words "#blacklivesmatter." In sharing the picture, Sykes wrote, “One of my satisfied, white and ALLY customers! This is a really great guy here and he’s one of the men in blue!” 

Grizzell made special note of the Biehl photograph in her initial email. “ALSO, on her page was a picture of Detective Bob Biehl wearing a BLM Ally shirt with a narrative from [Sykes] about how he is supporting the movement,” Grizzell wrote. “I’ve copied Cmdr. [Scott] Hyland on here … for action as he sees fit.”

Hyland responded early the next morning. “I thought my detective may have been actually violating dress code in real time and I took immediate action,” he wrote. But in speaking with Biehl, Hyland continued in his email, he learned that the photo was taken while the detective was off-duty. Signing off, Hyland said that he didn’t see any merit in pursuing further follow-up “until advised otherwise.”

“When all that happened, I said to myself, ‘Wow, just this little post I made on Facebook, they have gone above and beyond making sure not only do I get in trouble for this, but dragging other people in,” said Sykes, who was particularly stung by CPD trying to pin Biehl with a dress violation for wearing a pro-BLM shirt, since she believes that desire evidences that at least some in command view the social justice movement in combative terms. “And that blows my mind. You can be pro-Black Lives Matter and pro-police. Police are not unnecessary. Calling me ‘anti-police’ when I worked in the police building, when I wanted to be a police officer at one time. … I’m anti-police brutality. I’m anti-racist. I’m not anti-police.”