Philly cops disciplined; but city vows to do more to address Facebook posts

Philadelphia officials concluded that the Facebook posts of 191 active police officers violated department regulations after an internal affairs investigation, the city’s acting police commissioner told City Council members Tuesday.

“The social media posts revealed by the Plain View Project by certain active members of the Philadelphia Police Department were disgusting and outright appalling,” said acting commissioner Christine M. Coulter of the database that was publicly released June 1. “Without doubt, while only a small percentage of our officers were involved, the trust in the Philadelphia Police Department by the communities we have sworn to serve has been seriously compromised.”

Coulter’s comments came at a public hearing called by the council so city officials could provide updates after the publication of the database, which studied the Facebook pages of police officers in eight cities across the country. The project, which identified more than 5,000 posts that included a variety of comments, memes and other online activity that could undermine public trust, was first reported by Injustice Watch, in collaboration with Buzzfeed News, in June.

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The database included posts by officers that displayed bias against Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, women and the LGBTQ community, as well as public Facebook activity that promoted violence, among other factors that caused the posts to be flagged. Philadelphia, the largest of the eight cities, promptly responded to the publication by removing 72 officers off the street pending investigation; officials in other cities, including Phoenix and Dallas, also launched investigations into the posts of their officers.

Coulter said that of the officers whose posts violated department policy, 11 have resigned amid the threat of being fired, and the department is attempting to fire four others. In addition, she said, seven other officers received 30-day suspensions, and 148 other officers received a lesser discipline.

She said the internal affairs investigation concluded that 100 of the officers’ posts did not violate department regulations, and that complaints involving 27 officers’ posts were “unfounded.” Twenty-seven cases remain open.

In her remarks, both Coulter and the city’s managing director, Brian Abernathy, acknowledged the city’s intention to do far more than discipline officers to rebuild public trust. “We understood very early that we needed something much more than the reiteration of existing policy to address the core issue of hate and bias,” Coulter said.

Abernathy, who sat beside her at the hearing, added: “As much as I’d like to say that the issues that led to the Plain View Project are in our past, I know we have much more work to do. Bigotry plagues us – racism, misogyny, religious intolerance, homophobia, ageism – and plagues not just the police department but much of our society today.”

They spoke of bias training for officers; of proactive examinations of officers’ social media posts to, as Coulter said, “weed out hate”; and of tightening the social media policy on what posts are acceptable.

The hearing came before a crowd of residents, other officials and activists who expressed, one after another, their outrage over the negative comments captured in the Plain View research.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said the chief defender of the Philadelphia Defender Association, Keir Bradford-Grey. “If you have strategies and policies in place but you do not change the culture nothing will change,” she said.

Echoed Rochelle Bilal, a retired police officer who is the Democratic candidate for sheriff, “You cannot train your way out of being a bigot.” Bilal added, “We can’t keep going around saying we’re going to train a racist person to be normal.”

Coulter said that “rebuilding public trust and sustaining it over time” is not going to be an easy task.

Coulter became acting commissioner after Commissioner Richard Ross abruptly resigned last month amid concerns he had failed to forcefully respond to allegations of sexual harassment within the department.

Her appearance came days after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that Coulter had been photographed in the 1990s, as a young officer, wearing a t-shirt that said, “LAPD: We treat you like a king,” an apparent allusion to an incident captured on video in which a motorist named Rodney King was assaulted by officers.

She began her remarks by apologizing for wearing the shirt, saying it did not reflect her views.

But Council member Cindy Bass received widespread applause when she called on Coulter to step down over the photograph.

Bass shrugged off the implication that the Plain View Project represented a revelation. She said the attitude exposed by officers in the posts revealed “nothing new to residents. The idea that this is a revelation is extremely disturbing to me.”