Across U.S., officials alarmed by the Facebook posts of police officers

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In Philadelphia, the district attorney said he will review a new database collecting controversial Facebook posts by police officers, and will inform defense attorneys of any posts reflecting bias or supporting violence by officers involved in a case.

In Phoenix, the police chief pulled 12 officers off the streets, and told a KTAR News reporter she was “shocked at the nature of the posts, at the language of the posts, of the photos of the posts.”

In St. Louis, the head of an association of largely-minority officers called on the department to fire officers whose Facebook pages included offensive posts.The department announced sensitivity training for officers would begin next week.

Across the country, officials and citizens alike reacted intensely to the Injustice Watch/Buzzfeed News collaboration reporting on the launch of a new database, the Plain View Project, which identified more than 5,000 posts, comments and other activity by law enforcement across eight departments, large and small, that had the potential to undermine public trust. Posts were typically included in the database if they displayed bias, applauded violence, scoffed at due process, or used dehumanizing language.

David Kennedy, a criminology professor at John Jay College, said “the rapidity of the response from agencies who are saying this is not okay and we’re taking action—I find that really encouraging.”

On Saturday, Injustice Watch reporters in collaboration with Buzzfeed News published an investigation timed to the release of the database, which included posts from current and former law enforcement officers in eight cities: Phoenix; St. Louis; Philadelphia; Dallas; York, Pennsylvania; Twin Falls, Idaho; Denison, Texas; and Lake County, Florida.

Researchers from the Plain View Project obtained rosters from those departments and searched for the Facebook pages of the department’s officers, flagging posts, comments and activity that had the potential to undermine public trust in policing.

Organizations of police officers with significant minority membership in Dallas and St. Louis expressed alarm, but not surprise, at the database and its findings.

Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the St. Louis-based Ethical Society of Police, said her members were angry, and are calling on the department to terminate the officers who have publicly shared racist, sexist, homophobic, Islamophobic, violent and vile statements. She said the police department in St. Louis has long struggled with its public image because of internal racism and things that have happened out in the community, and that the information in the database will only make the job of policing more difficult.

“You add another thing to our police department,” Taylor said. “We have officers killing other officers, officers shooting other officers, officers beating other officers, posting racially violent content…officers that think it’s okay to make fun of African Americans. It adds another layer of problems. Our community, how can they trust us?”

Taylor said there have been positive changes since Police Chief John Hayden began heading the department, but noted that shifting the culture takes time. She questioned why other officers who saw the problematic posts included in the database did not report them, and said that the department needs to start policing itself.

“You post it for the world to see,” Taylor said. “You didn’t care, that’s a sign of a culture that’s used to getting away with these things.”

Kennedy speculated that the database has shown departments and non-police alike a way to watch for problem officers.

Terrance Hopkins, President of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas, said his group is asking the Dallas Police Department to make necessary changes to ensure officers who posted offensive content are either disciplined or removed from the police force. Communities across the country do not deserve officers who have displayed offensive sentiments, he said.

Hopkins said the men and women on the police force do not need to be having biases and prejudices, “especially not where they post them daily and embarrass us all.”

Several police and public officials have made public announcements raising alarm at the content of the social media activity contained in the Plain View Project’s database.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner said some of the posts by Philadelphia police officers, like those displaying bias against race and religion and support for illegal violence and the violation of civil rights, could be relevant at trial.

“When police officers choose to express a bias that relates to their work, and choose to publicize it to the world, they are arguably choosing to be on a list of police officers” who require the office to disclose additional information Krasner said, referring to the state’s responsibility to disclose any material that could be helpful to the defense in cases.

In a statement, St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly M. Gardner said her office is conducting a review of the database “to determine potential biases which may have influenced how police officers carried out their job” in criminal cases. Gardner said in the statement that the community cannot tolerate bias in policing.

Prosecutors offices in Dallas and Phoenix declined to comment on the database and its potential implications. The top prosecutor in Florida’s Fifth Judicial Circuit, which includes Lake County, Florida., did not respond to a request for comment.

The database moves into “uncharted territory” the question of what police administrators should be responsible for, like monitoring Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, said Chuck Wexler, Executive Director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.

“One of the questions will be…drawing the line between someone expressing themselves and language that is not only offensive but has serious consequences for someone’s credibility,” Wexler said.

He said he thinks any police chief across the country who has viewed the database has reason to be concerned. Departments are reminding their officers that they need to be aware of the implications social media posts can have as a member of law enforcement, he said, and letting them know that offensive statements are going to be used to question officers credibility.