SALT LAKE COUNTY -- Several billboards erected in Utah sparked a surge of criticism on social media from folks who felt the billboards belittled the work of law enforcement personnel, and now the signs have been taken down.
One Utah woman's photo of the billboard was shared more than 1,000 times in less than 24 hours.
Becca DeHart, President of the nonprofit group Police Wives of Utah, said she woke up to several text messages about the billboard Sunday.
“A lot of people are very upset, a lot of my [fellow police] wives are upset because, we send our husbands out each day. My husband is working right now for the holiday weekend, you don’t know if they’re coming back, you don’t know what’s going to happen," she said.
DeHart said she and others felt the message was disrespectful and blatantly "anti-cop."
“It’s very hurtful that you would try to put out something that, our husbands 'don’t hear you,'" she said. "They are. They are the first ones that run in, they are the first ones to come to a scene that people don’t want to deal with."
She and the woman who made the original Facebook post, Ricki Draper, said they spoke with the officer and he relayed that he had no idea his photo was being used with this ad campaign.
The officer works for Pleasant Grove Police, and Draper said he's served more than 30 years. For the family, she said it's tough to hear the billboards got posted in the very community he serves in.
"Really embarrassing and really hard for that family to deal with, seeing his picture up there touted and kind of mocked," she said.
Pleasant Grove Police Chief Michael Smith said the officer took photos for an ad agency, thinking they'd be used as stock photos for different ad campaigns. He said the officer didn't know his image would end up paired with that message on the billboard.
"He says he definitely... did not know that it would be used in the manner that it was," Chief Smith said.
Ken Garff Automotive Group has apologized, and the billboards were taken down Sunday.
The company posted on Facebook: "This weekend we put up a new billboard with messaging that is in poor taste. We blew it. We will be taking them down as soon as possible. Apologies to anyone offended by our thoughtless mistake. Thanks to eveyone [sic] who has brought this to our attention."
Later, a second post added thoughts directed specifically toward law enforcement: "At Ken Garff we are grateful for all of the hard work of our law enforcement. We seriously regret our messaging and apologize for making light of their service. We blew it. The signs will be down today and tomorrow."
A statement sent to FOX 13 by Ken Garff shed some light on the intent behind the ad: "Our concept was actually meant to be pro-police, though we obviously failed in that respect. The officer pictured – who we photographed with permission – was meant to represent a traffic officer who was uncompromising in hearing excuses for speeding."
The full statement is available at the bottom of this post.
DeHart said she is grateful for the apology, but she said it's a little too late.
“We don’t wish them any ill, we don’t condone any bashing of Ken Garff," she said. "It was just really disrespectful, and it was really hurtful that you would use an officer’s photo that works in this state, without his permission."
DeHart said she wants folks to know that her husband and other police officers are listening.
“They do hear you, they do want the best for you, and why put such a hateful marketing scheme up there?" she said.
Chief Smith said Ken Garff and company representatives personally called him to apologize.
"I don't hold any ill will towards them," he said. "They've been good. I mean, they took them down, they've been very respectful and admitted that is was in poor taste, and what more can we ask from them?"
He did add that the department has policies prohibiting photos like this, and that what happened did not have proper authorization.
Chief Smith said they will now look at any possible repercussions against the officer.
While Pleasant Grove Police look at how to handle the situation, a series of negative, one-star reviews have flooded Ken Garff's Facebook page both before and after the apology.
The company responded to several of those reviews, expressing their apologies. There were also negative reactions on Twitter.
At least one person seemed to support the company and the billboards.
Ken Garff provided this statement regarding the billboards removed in northern Utah:
"At Ken Garff, we posted a billboard that offended many in the community. We sincerely apologize. The billboard had a photo of a traffic officer with the words, “He doesn't hear you. We do.” Our concept was actually meant to be pro-police, though we obviously failed in that respect. The officer pictured – who we photographed with permission – was meant to represent a traffic officer who was uncompromising in hearing excuses for speeding.
For some time, we’ve tried to incorporate humor in our campaigns. The risk with humor is that can miss the mark, like it did here. We didn't intend this to be disrespectful when we approved the billboard.
In hindsight, we recognize the negative way it can be, and has been, interpreted. We’ve heard you and have taken the billboards down. We have immense respect for those who serve and protect us every day. Many of them are our family members, neighbors, customers and friends. We recognize and honor their service and sacrifice. We sincerely apologize to those we have offended. We hear your complaints and are acting accordingly."