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Group catalogs racist, intolerant Facebook posts by hundreds of Philly police officers

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by Chris Palmer, Stacey Burling, Nathaniel Lash and Julie Shaw

Advocates researching police bias published a database Saturday of what they said were racist, intolerant, or otherwise offensive Facebook posts or comments made by hundreds of current and former Philadelphia police officers.

The database, compiled by a group called the Plain View Project, highlights posts from officers in eight police departments across the country. The list cited 330 active Philadelphia police officers — including an inspector, six captains, and nine lieutenants — who made posts or comments that researchers considered dehumanizing, supportive of violence, and that “could erode civilian trust and confidence in police.”

One man identified on the database as a Philadelphia police sergeant shared a photo of a skeleton wrapped in a U.S. flag, carrying a gun, and the words Death To Islam on top.

Beneath another post about what are known as “knockout games,” in which young people try to knock out a random stranger with one punch, a man identified as a Philadelphia officer commented: “Hope one of these kids get shot in the face.”

Police Commissioner Richard Ross said in an interview Saturday that he was “very troubled” by the report and that Internal Affairs had been investigating officers for potential policy violations since February, when department officials were contacted about the group’s findings.

“I’m dismayed by the fact that some officers failed to realize that they represent this organization on- or off-duty,” Ross said.

The reaction to the database was swift. Mayor Jim Kenney said in a statement that the posts were “deeply disturbing” and “violate a number of department policies.” Some defense attorneys said the database could provide an avenue for criminal defendants to challenge cases by questioning an officer’s credibility.

And District Attorney Larry Krasner — who has charged police for wrongdoing in ways his predecessors had not and created his own list of officers with credibility problems — said: “When police officers choose to make statements relevant to their work and then choose to publicize them to the world, they are also choosing any consequences that those statements, the law, and justice require.”

The revelations “certainly [have] the possibility for being a larger issue” for the department, said David Rudovsky, a Center City civil rights attorney. And Keir Bradford-Grey, chief of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said: “I thought of just anger, really, that police officers who patrol the community can be this loose with showing their bias.”

The researchers behind the database, led by lawyer Emily Baker-White, said they conducted the study over the last two years, identifying officers through a combination of police rosters, profile names, URLs, photographs, badge numbers, and other identifying information.

Baker-White, a Harvard Law School graduate, said in an interview that she became interested in the topic after she stumbled onto disturbing Facebook posts while on a fellowship at the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia and investigating police misconduct in another city.

Baker-White said she realized that no one had tried to aggregate social-media posts from police officers that might reveal bias. She and a paralegal compiled information about Facebook activity by current and former officers in Philadelphia — which currently has 6,500 active officers — and seven other locations: York, Pa.; Phoenix; Dallas; St. Louis; Twin Falls, Idaho; Denison, Texas; and Lake County, Fla.

The research team obtained published rosters of police officers in 2017 and began reviewing Facebook posts after verifying that they belonged to the officers.

The content they examined included posts by the officers or comments they made on posts by others. Their list ultimately included 505 current and retired Philadelphia officers.

During her research, Baker-White connected with Injustice Watch, a nonprofit news organization in Chicago, which produced a story about the data in collaboration with BuzzFeed, said Rick Tulsky, codirector of Injustice Watch and a former Inquirer reporter.

The story, published Saturday morning, said that 139 of the Philadelphia officers who posted troubling content appeared to have been defendants in one or more federal civil rights lawsuits. Of those suits, Injustice Watch and BuzzFeed reported, 100 ended in settlements or verdicts against the officers or the city.

Baker-White, who now lives in San Francisco, said that when deciding whether to include a post in the database, she asked: “Is this a post that could possibly erode public trust in policing?”

Most of the posts that met her threshold for inclusion involved officers’ statements about people of certain religions, races, or citizenship status, or about the appropriateness of violence in policing or addressing crime, she said. Another theme was the use of dehumanizing terms to describe suspects — words like animals, savages, or subhumans.

Still, the Plain View Project website says: “The posts and comments are open to various interpretations. We do not know what a poster meant when he or she typed them; we only know that when we saw them, they concerned us.”

One example: A man identified as Philadelphia Officer Jose Cartagena was flagged for his Facebook profile picture, a skull surrounded by the words: “Despite what your momma told you … Violence does solve problems.” That logo and slogan were made popular by Chris Kyle, the former U.S. Navy SEAL whose life story was told in the movie American Sniper.

Ross said the Police Department was told about the Plain View Project’s findings in February and was given the names of seven officers who allegedly had made offensive or inappropriate posts. He said those officers — whom he did not identify — have since been under investigation for potential policy violations. Ross did not say when the probes might be completed but said some officers were likely to be disciplined.

He said the department would examine the entire database now that it is public. The police commissioner said one of the challenges in investigating the alleged bias is that the officers were making the Facebook posts as private citizens. And in some instances, he added, they were not posting under their own names.

The department’s social-media policy says in part: “Employees are prohibited from using ethnic slurs, profanity, personal insults; material that is harassing, defamatory, fraudulent, or discriminatory, or other content or communications that would not be acceptable in a City workplace under City or agency policy or practice.”

Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum based in Washington, said managing officers’ personal social-media activity is a growing issue nationwide, with departments grappling over how to monitor and handle officers’ off-duty behavior without violating free-speech rights.

“The reason people are selected as police officers is because they’re considered objective and credible and all the things that are necessary to do their jobs,” Wexler said. “So when you have something like this, it really hits at their credibility.”

Still, the issue of offensive online rhetoric is not new to Philadelphia police. Ten years ago, a group of black officers alleged in a federal civil rights lawsuit that Domelights.com, an online forum geared toward city officers, was “infested with racist, white supremacist and anti-African-American content.” Until it was shut down in July 2009 in response to the suit, the website was run by a Philadelphia police sergeant. The city agreed to settle the suit in 2011.

John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, the police officers’ union, said in a statement: “We strongly condemn violence and racism in any form,” adding that the “overwhelming majority” of officers “regularly act with integrity and professionalism.”

Ross said he did not believe the department had a widespread bias or racism problem but added that offensive postings by one officer can affect the entire department’s credibility.

“People who have taken an oath to protect and serve should understand that what they do represents this organization,” he said.

Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said she was “overwhelmed and alarmed” by the volume of troubling posts cited by the Plain View Project. She said the information included in the database should not be treated as a “bad apple” issue.

“I think the department needs to confront the fact that this is clearly a more widespread issue than that,” Roper said. “This is a cultural issue.”