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Spotlight: In A Study of Cops’ Facebook Accounts, 1 in 5 Had Posted Racist, Violent Content

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Spotlight: In A Study of Cops’ Facebook Accounts, 1 in 5 Had Posted Racist, Violent Content

On Saturday, Injustice Watch and BuzzFeed News published an investigation into racist and violent social media posts by current and retired police officers. The article by Emily Hoerner and Rick Tulsky came out of a collaboration with the Plain View Project, which examined the Facebook accounts of police officers from eight departments across the county.

The Plain View Project looked at the accounts of about 2,900 current officers and 800 retired officers. Hoerner and Tulsky reported that “the project sought to compile posts, comments, and other public activity that could undermine public trust in the police and reinforce the views of critics, especially in minority communities, that the police are not there to protect them.”

The researchers found more than 5,000 posts and comments that met their criteria. Of the officers who could be identified on Facebook, 1 in every 5 of the current officers and 2 in every 5 of the retired officers made comments that met that standard, “typically by displaying bias, applauding violence, scoffing at due process, or using dehumanizing language,” Hoerner and Tulsky wrote. They describe posts in which “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.”

A post by a Phoenix police officer read: “Its [sic] a good day for a choke hold.” One Philadelphia officer mocked another officer as a “disgrace” for exercising restraint when a person refused to show a receipt. “My taser would’ve had him dancing,” he wrote.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the identification of nearly 330 active local officers’ public Facebook posts that were included in the database. Reggie Shuford of the ACLU of Pennsylvania said, “Hundreds of police officers in Philadelphia openly express hostility and antipathy toward the people they serve. And the report only exposes those officers who did not hide their views behind a privacy wall. How many more officers say the same thing under the cloak of stronger privacy settings?”

It wasn’t just the less-experienced or lower-ranked officers who were responsible for the offensive, troubling public posts. Among those identified as members of the Philadelphia police department, at least 64 were in leadership roles, “serving as corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, captains, or inspectors, according to an employment roster from January.” One man identified in the database as a Philadelphia sergeant posted a photo of a skeleton wrapped in a U.S. flag, carrying a gun, with the phrase “Death To Islam” on top.

Hoerner and Tulsky also took the Plain View Project’s research and looked into whether officers whose Facebook posts warranted concern had a history of allegations of brutality or misconduct. In Philadelphia, as an example, they found that of the 328 officers, more than a third—139 officers—appeared to have been defendants in one or more federal civil rights lawsuits “based on name, badge number, and other corroborating details.” A hundred of those lawsuits ended in settlements or verdicts against the officers or the city.

The Plain View Project database and the Injustice Watch and BuzzFeed report force questions about the racism that is allowed to fester, unchecked, in police departments across the country, even at the highest levels, and the consequences for how communities are policed.

The Plain View Project website includes a disclaimer: “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.” The project’s caution in interpreting social media posts is appropriate. But the brazenness with which police officers—public servants tasked with public protection—can express hostility to and loathing for whole subsets of the communities they are hired to serve is troubling. “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 Hoerner and Tulsky.

This is especially the case in light of how another subset’s social media activity is viewed and responded to: Black and Latinx youth. There is a disconnect in the lack of consequences for officers who embrace messages so at odds with any ideal of fair and just policing and the web of consequences that greets low-income young people of color whose social media activity police surveil. In many cases, police officers and prosecutors act as unquestioned authorities on the intentions and meaning of teens’ social media activity.

An April article in The Nation by David Uberti looked at sociologist Jeffrey Lane’s book “The Digital Street.” Lane examines the rampant surveillance of the social media activity of teenagers in central Harlem between 2009 and 2012 that fed sweeping gang prosecutions, some of which came years after the online activity under scrutiny. Lane wrote: “Whereas some teens are involved in street violence, most teens are around this activity only because they share neighborhood space with conflict-involved peers, assuming social media users become ‘hot’ as they discuss neighborhood violence, their communication exposes themselves and their peers to the authorities.”

This Spotlight originally appeared in The Daily Appeal newsletter. Subscribe here.