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Spotlight: When Police Spread Racism and Hate Online, It Says Something About How They Work

Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images.

Spotlight: When Police Spread Racism and Hate Online, It Says Something About How They Work

On June 1, BuzzFeed and Injustice Watch reported on the Plain View Project, a new database of racist, violent, and otherwise offensive public Facebook posts and comments by active and retired police officers. (We covered the Plain View Project, the online behavior it exposed, and the additional investigation by Injustice Watch / BuzzFeed in our June 3 edition.)

Since then, there has been extensive national coverage of the database and the comments and posts by police it contains. The project was born out of founder Emily Baker-White’s experience, while as a public defender in Philadelphia, of coming across a meme shared publicly by a police officer. It showed a police dog, teeth bared and trying to run after a suspect, with text over the image that read, “I hope you run—he likes fast food.” Baker-White wondered how often police officers felt comfortable sharing violent, offensive imagery publicly.

The answer, it turned out, was very often.

In one publicly available comment, a Phoenix police officer wrote: “it’s a good day for a chokehold.” 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,” Emily Hoerner and Rick Tulsky of Injustice Watch wrote.

What has happened since?

Law enforcement has been grappling with the revelations that, in just eight departments, there are over 3,500 current and retired officers whose public statements warranted inclusion. On June 4, the Washington Post reported that at least four of the eight departments whose officers were in the database had said they were investigating their officers’ social media activity.

This week, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kim Gardner sent a letter to the public safety director and police chief letting them know that she is adding the 22 current officers whose posts were flagged by Plain View Project researchers to a “banned” list. Seven of the 22 officers are “permanently banned,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports. This means her office “won’t issue charges based on their investigations, won’t apply for search warrants they seek and won’t consider cases in which they are essential witnesses.” Gardner’s office will review the work of the other 15 officers “to determine conditions and reinstatement of their ability to present cases,” according to a statement from Gardner’s spokesperson.

In Phoenix, police Chief Jeri Williams pulled some of the officers identified by the Plain View Project off their enforcement duties in the week after the revelations. While the Phoenix mayor described the posts attributed to the city’s officers as “hate speech,” others defended them as free speech. One City Council member said anyone offended by the posts was a “liberal snowflake” and that the posts did not indicate a culture of bias within the department.

Yet it was Phoenix officers caught on video last month becoming violent and belligerent, and drawing weapons on a Black family—a man, his pregnant fiancée, and their two children—all over a complaint that one of the children had taken a doll from a dollar store without the parents’ knowledge. The police department has refused to identify the officers involved.

In Philadelphia, of the nearly 330 active police officers identified by the Plain View Project for their posts, at least 50 have been placed on desk duty and the department has said that number could go up. In their investigation, Hoerner and Tulsky found that nearly a third of the Philadelphia officers identified for their posts had faced civil rights lawsuits that led to settlements or verdicts for the plaintiffs.

The Plain View Project explained the motivation for its research this way: “We believe that because fairness, equal treatment, and integrity are essential to the legitimacy of policing, these posts and comments should be part of a national dialogue about police.” Since the publication of the database, there are many who have resisted the notion that officers’ social media activity says anything about the broader state of policing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one group that has vocally opposed any calls for scrutiny is the Philadelphia chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. In a statement issued last week, the police union said the “overly-broad” investigation ignores the “good work done regularly” by police officers. The chapter president, John McNesby, said, “During this difficult climate in which police officers are constantly under attack, the FOP will continue to support” officers.

There have been two notions at work in the defense of officers since the Plain View Project’s revelations. The first is that officers’ social media activity is divorced from how they approach policing. The second is that the officers whose social media activity the database captured were an aberration.

The first argument requires a belief that officers willing to publicly express hostility toward certain groups of people can set those beliefs aside in the hundreds of interactions that constitute policing. The second argument is that when a review of approximately 3,500 Facebook accounts of officers from eight jurisdictions scattered across the country turns up over 5,000 racist and offensive statements, that those thousands of accounts and statements are unrepresentative. Both are deeply implausible.

And that was before last week, when a new investigation brought to light still more evidence of racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, violent, misogynist, and white supremacist sentiment among police.

Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting, published what is the first in a series of articles about hundreds of active-duty and retired police officers and corrections officers from around the country who belong to hate groups on Facebook. The groups include White Lives Matter and DEATH TO ISLAM UNDERCOVER. A guard at Louisiana’s Angola prison was a member of no less than 56 groups, including 45 Confederate groups and one called BAN THE NAACP.

In response to the Reveal investigation, at least 50 police departments have said they will launch internal investigations.

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