Thirteen Philadelphia officers face dismissal over Facebook posts

The Philadelphia police commissioner announced on Thursday the department’s intention to fire 13 officers who published offensive posts on Facebook, and to suspend several additional officers.

The announcement follows the June 1 Injustice Watch report, copublished with Buzzfeed News, of the release of a compilation of thousands of troubling posts by the Plain View Project. Commissioner Richard Ross said at a press conference in Philadelphia that some of the posts “in my view violate the basic tenets of human decency.” The posts, from eight cities across the country, included aggressive language such as “death to Islam,” references to police brutality and violence against transgender people.

“I continue to be very angered and disappointed by these posts,” Ross said at the press conference, joined by Mayor Jim Kenney. “I am saddened by the fact that there are even some who would attempt to justify such hateful and vile behavior.”

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Ross called it “disheartening to know that in 2019, that we still have people who have these views, that not only have these views, that would take to social media in a very public space to expound such views in a way that is absolutely sickening.”

The department did not reveal the names of the officers facing discipline.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5 President John McNesby, which represents the city’s rank-and-file officers, said in a statement that the FOP is “disappointed that our officers will be terminated without due process.”

Philadelphia was the largest of the eight cities studied by the Plain View Project, which found 327 active-duty officers contributed to the roughly 3,100 offensive posts compiled, some of which dated to 2010. The project was created by Emily Baker-White, a Philadelphia lawyer, who took the police rosters of four large cities and four smaller jurisdictions and studied Facebook to identify public posts by members of those forces.

Working with the Plain View Project research, Injustice Watch focused on Philadelphia, and found that 138 officers appeared to have had one or more federal civil rights lawsuits filed against them, based on name, badge number, and other corroborating details. Of that group, 99 ended in settlements or verdicts against them or the city.

After the article was published, several of the cities reacted by pulling officers from street duty or creating sensitivity training, among other steps. In Philadelphia 72 officers were removed from street duty as their posts were determined to be more inflammatory than the rest. Ross referenced the department’s Social Media Directive and how these officers’ violation of the policy warranted disciplinary action.

“Our analysis included a balance of the officer’s constitutional rights and the integrity of the police department,” Ross said at the press conference, explaining why certain posts led to different punishments.

Of the 72 officers who were removed from street-duty, 17 were determined to have constituted “an act or continuing course of conduct which demonstrates that the officers have little or no regard for their position as police officers,” Ross said.

Of those 17, all but four of the officers will receive dismissal forms within the next 30 days, putting into motion the process to dismiss them from the department. The officers could still find a way to get their jobs back through the internal appeal process the city has negotiated with the police union. That process has helped controversial officers get reinstated in the past. The Fraternal Order of Police has reportedly had a 90 percent success rate arguing these types of cases.

In addition to the 13 officers the city intends to fire, four others were given a 30-day suspension. The remaining 55 officers that were taken off active duty will receive anywhere from a reprimand up to a five-day suspension, he said. The disciplinary process is far from over, and Ross said they will have more information by Labor Day regarding the status of the investigations concerning the rest of the officers included in the database.

“This is uncharted territory, this is something you never want to happen in your organization,” said Ross.

Looking towards the future, Ross voiced ideas for how the department will be able to regain the public’s trust and rebuild a feeling of community. Some of the initiatives underway in the department include training to discuss social media and professionalism online.

The department also plans to closely oversee the social media activity of its officers through data mining, and is also actively partnering with outside organizations to establish anti-bias and anti-racist workshops as early as the fall.

“We will work, you have our commitment, we will work tirelessly to make this situation better,” said Ross. “We know it will take a tremendous amount of effort on our part, and that is not lost on us.”

Stender Von Oehsen, Julian Gonzalez and Radhika Upadhye are Injustice Watch interns.