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Police posted thousands of offensive memes on Facebook. Now some of them are being fired.

Philadelphia is firing 13 officers for racist Facebook posts. Other departments could soon follow.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross speaks into a microphone in front of a badge-shaped sign that reads, “Philadelphia police.”
Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross announced on July 18, 2019, that 13 officers will be fired for racist and violent Facebook posts. The firing comes as fallout continues from a report of offensive social media activity from officers in several police departments.
Matt Rourke/AP

The Philadelphia police department announced on Thursday that 13 officers will be fired for social media posts that advocated violence and included racist, misogynistic, and homophobic remarks about African Americans, Muslim Americans, and other groups. Seventy-two officers in the department were previously put on administrative duty over the posts.

The announcement comes a little over a month after an investigative report from BuzzFeed News and Injustice Watch, a nonprofit Chicago-based news outlet, examined how police departments were grappling with a systemic problem of officers posting extremely racist, bigoted, and violent content on Facebook, with other officers often sharing these posts or approvingly commenting on them.

The report relied on data from the Plain View Project, which created a database examining racist, sexist, and violent posts from roughly 2,900 current and 600 former police officers in eight police departments. More than 1,200 of the roughly 5,100 posts came from Philadelphia officers on active duty.

Many of the posts were from rank-and-file officers, but at least 64 officers served in some sort of leadership position. The June investigative report notes that “of 328 officers in Philadelphia who posted troubling content, more than a third — 139 officers — appeared to have had one or more federal civil rights lawsuits filed against them.”

In one post cited in the joint BuzzFeed News/Injustice Watch report, a Philadelphia officer argued that he “would of pulled the trigger,” when commenting on a video of a store clerk pulling a gun to scare off an attempted robber. In another, an officer shared a meme that said “death to Islam.” Other posts referred to African American suspects as “thugs,” called for the “extermination” of people arrested for violent crimes, and advocated police brutality.

The Philadelphia Police Department says that in addition to the firings, some officers will be suspended. The agency has already begun anti-bias and anti-racism training, and officers’ social media accounts will be periodically audited in an effort to ensure that officers are complying with the department’s social media policy.

But this issue is not isolated to Philadelphia. The Plain View Project found other departments that have shown similar activity, using social media and private online groups to share racist memes, exchange conspiracy theories, and advocate using violence. Policing experts who reviewed the database say that at a time where instances of police violence and misconduct have called increased attention to strained relationships between police officers and the communities of color they are responsible for serving, these sorts of posts make things even worse.

There were examples of racist social media activity in other police departments

The Plain View Project was created by Emily Baker-White, a Philadelphia-based attorney. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, Baker-White explained that she started the project in 2017 after coming across violent Facebook posts from police officers, including a picture of an aggressive police dog with the words, “I hope you run, he likes fast food,” superimposed over it. Baker-White said she wanted to get a sense for how pervasive this type of social media use was by examining similar posts from other officers.

The Plain View Project’s database looks at the posts of active and retired officers from eight cities: Philadelphia, PA; Dallas, TX; St. Louis, MO; Phoenix, AZ; York, PA; Dennison, TX; Twin Falls, ID; and Lake County, FL.

Here’s how the investigative report described the Plain View Project’s findings:

Of the pages of officers whom the Plain View researchers could positively identify, about 1 in 5 of the current officers, and 2 in 5 of the retired officers, made public posts or comments that met that threshold — typically by displaying bias, applauding violence, scoffing at due process, or using dehumanizing language. The officers mocked Mexicans, women, and black people, celebrated the Confederate flag, and showed a man wearing a kaffiyeh scarf in the crosshairs of a gun.

Policing experts and academics criticized the social media posts included in the database. “This blows up the myth of bad apples, by the sheer number of images and numbers of individuals who are implicated,” Nikki Jones, an associate professor of African American studies at the University of California Berkeley, told BuzzFeed News.

“The public should interpret this as a snapshot of how some police officers behave — and, perhaps, what they think — when the veil is lifted and the police subculture is exposed,” Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green State University criminologist who tracks police misconduct and officer convictions, told CityLab.

The Plain View Project database has prompted several police departments to launch internal investigations. In Phoenix, where one officer sent posts saying things like, “It’s a good day for a chokehold,” police chief Jeri Williams called the posts “embarrassing and disturbing.” In St. Louis, circuit attorney Kimberly Gardner added 22 officers to an “exclusion list” of those barred from bringing cases to her office. Seven of those officers will be permanently banned.

These types of Facebook scandals aren’t new, but they’re getting increased attention

The Plain View Project is not first to notice that some police officers have made racist, sexist, and homophobic social media posts. Even before the project released its findings, officers in various police departments had been criticized for making offensive remarks about cases in their communities, calling for violence against racial justice protesters, sharing Islamophobic posts, or mocking high-profile victims of police violence.

In June, as the Plain View Project database gained attention, other reports highlighted similar behavior in other departments. A recent investigation from Reveal News, for example, found that hundreds of active-duty and retired officers in more than 50 police departments “are members of Confederate, anti-Islam, misogynistic or anti-government militia groups on Facebook.” And other law enforcement agencies, like US Customs and Border Protection, have also faced criticism recently for similarly disturbing social media activity.

The Plain View Project database presents a more comprehensive look at the issue, offering a revealing look into what some officers say about the communities they serve.

”This is the kind of behavior that confirms the worst suspicions on the part of communities about the police,” David Kennedy, a criminology professor at John Jay College, told BuzzFeed News and Injustice Watch in June. Kennedy added that these posts “fuel and cement” the belief in some marginalized communities that “police are not to be trusted.”

As the Plain View Project has gotten increased attention, some police unions and other critics argue that the group is unfairly attacking police officers as a whole by highlighting posts that they say represent just a few of the thousands of officers in the US.

”[T]o smear our entire department for the words — not actions, words — of a handful of officers is, at best, disingenuous, and is truly insulting to the literally thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line for us every single day and do so with honor,” Phoenix city council member Sal DiCiccio said as local officials responded to the database in June.

But these attempts to move past the controversy ignore how these social media posts could be received by marginalized communities, many of which have already dealt with various issues — unnecessary stops and arrests, excessive force, harassment — that have made it difficult for them to trust police officers. And the language officers use matters: For a citizen of color, it can be difficult to believe that an officer sees you as a person when his social media activity says otherwise.

Departments have responded to many of these concerns by reiterating that they have social media policies that prohibit officers from making racist, sexist, and other offensive statements. But the recent scandals in Philadelphia and elsewhere show that these policies are often being ignored, and if unaddressed they could undermine police reform efforts. “We’ve made significant inroads, but this takes us back,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said this week.

Baker-White, the founder of the Plain View Project, says the issues highlighted by her group’s database show that departments’ reform efforts can’t just be about changing the rules, they must also work on changing how officers approach policing entirely. “I hope that police departments make changes to increase accountability,” Baker-White told the Washington Post, “but also to try to shift culture.”

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