By David Schwartz
PHOENIX (Reuters) - The U.S. Secret Service is investigating the origins of a photo on an Arizona police officer's Facebook page that shows a group of armed youths posing in the desert with what appears to be a bullet-ridden image of President Barack Obama on a T-shirt.
Max Milien, a Secret Service spokesman, said on Friday that the agency was looking into the picture taken of seven youths, four of them toting guns, that turned up on the Facebook page of Sergeant Pat Shearer of the Peoria, Arizona, police department.
"Any time information is brought to our attention where an individual or a group of individuals expresses unusual direction of interest in one of our protectees, we conduct appropriate follow-up," said Milien.
He said individuals have a right of freedom of speech, but "we certainly have the right and duty to speak to individuals to determine what their intent is."
The Peoria police also said they were conducting an internal inquiry into whether the officer's actions violated any department policy. Peoria is a suburb west of Phoenix.
The department was informed of the situation by the Secret Service early on Thursday afternoon, a spokesman said.
The photo, which was shown on local TV with the youths' faces blanked out, has since been removed from Shearer's Facebook page.
In an interview with a local television station, Shearer said the picture was taken by him, and he did not feel it was "that big of a deal." He called it a "political statement."
He told the station he stands by Obama and would give up his life for him.
"It's not like they (the youths) were going to go out and shoot the president," Shearer said.
The 25-year veteran officer has not been placed on administrative leave, Peoria police spokesman Jay Davies said.
He could face a range of disciplinary action if found to be in violation of department's policy governing use of social and electronic media.
That police states: "Employees shall not post, transmit, reproduce, and/or disseminate information (text, pictures, video, audio, etc.) to the Internet or any other forum (public or private) that would tend to discredit or reflect unfavorably upon the department or any of the department's employees."
Davies declined to discuss specific details of the department's investigation.
Danielle Airey, a Peoria Unified School District spokeswoman, confirmed that one of the youths in the picture is a district high school student but did not know about the others.
She declined comment on whether any action has been taken against the student.
"Our first step really is working with authorities as they conduct their investigations," she said.
(Additional reporting in Washington by Ian Simpson; Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Thomasch)