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72 Philadelphia Police Officers Placed On Desk Duty Over Offensive Social Media Posts

Jun 19, 2019
Originally published on June 20, 2019 11:45 am

The Philadelphia Police Department has pulled 72 officers off their regular duties as authorities investigate inflammatory social media posts revealed in a database that found thousands of offensive postings by current and former officers, the city's police commissioner said Wednesday.

Police officials in Philadelphia are describing the action as the largest removal of officers from the street in recent memory.

"We are equally as disgusted by many of the posts that you saw and in many cases, the rest of the nation saw," said Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross.

It is the latest fallout since the advocacy group The Plain View Project earlier this month released thousands of Facebook posts and comments by current and former police officers that range from racist memes, to posts celebrating violence and messages containing Islamophobic themes, among other offensive material.

Since the data dump, internal affairs officials in police departments including Phoenix, St. Louis and Dallas are probing whether the distasteful and sometimes violent material should warrant disciplinary action or terminations.

In Philadelphia, Ross said Wednesday that at least "several dozen" of the 72 officers now on desk duty will be disciplined and others will be fired, but he did not provide specifics, including any of the names of those who have been taken off their regular duties.

"We've talked about from the outset how disturbing, how disappointing and upsetting these posts are," Ross told reporters at the police department's headquarters. "They will undeniably impact police-community relations."

David Rudovsky, a longtime Philadelphia civil rights lawyer who focuses on police misconduct, called the decision to place 72 officers on desk duty "significant," saying the social media posts appear to show conduct that is inconsistent with the department's promise of fair and equal treatment for all residents.

"More important will be the future decisions regarding sanctions or other measures to deal with this widespread problem in the police department," Rudovsky said.

Philadelphia criminal defense lawyer Paul Hetznecker agreed that the Facebook message scandal is a fresh reminder of an issue that has long plagued city law enforcement.

"We're all aware of it," Hetznecker said. "There's not anyone who has been connected to the criminal justice system in Philadelphia who isn't aware of the underlying problems of implicit bias and explicit bias that these posts reflect that have existed for a long, long time, for decades."

The research project tracking officers' use of social media flagged offensive material posted by about 2,900 current officers, some in supervisor roles, and posts by hundreds of former police officers across eight police departments.

The database, first reported on by BuzzFeed and Injustice Watch, was undertaken by Philadelphia lawyer Emily Baker-White, who compiled the trove of postings in an effort to examine whether the online behavior could undermine public trust in police and make it more difficult for officers to work with minority communities.

After looking through the postings, Ross said some of the bigoted content will indeed compromise confidence in the city's police department.

"This puts us in a position to work even harder than we already do to cultivate relationships with neighborhoods and individual groups that we struggle to work with or struggle to maintain relationships with now," said Ross, noting that the postings tarnish the police department's reputation.

"We will work tirelessly to repair that reputation," he added.

The scandal has implicated more than 300 officers in Philadelphia, a city that has some 6,500 active police officers.

It would not be fair, Ross said, to assume all officers are biased because of the Facebook activities of a fraction of the department.

"There are many, many thousands who don't think like this and who wouldn't engage in this kind of behavior," Ross said. "Wouldn't make sense to assume that everybody is a racist and everybody is Islamophobic and everybody is a sexist, because they're not."

The department has hired the private law firm Ballard Spahr to sift through the 3,100 posts identified as containing offensive messages. The firm will help determine whether the post was protected under the First Amendment, Ross said.

Additionally, anti-bias and anti-racist training will be conducted across the department, and officers will be reminded of what constitutes appropriate behavior on social media, according to Ross. Officials will also launch periodic audits of police officers' social media accounts.

The department's social media policy prohibits profanity, discriminatory language or personal insults.

The 72 officers placed on desk duty represents the largest removal of Philadelphia police officers from the streets over a single investigation, Ross said.

"I can't think of any other investigation that we've undertaken, at least in my 30 years, with that many people taken off the street at one time," he said.

Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney has called the officers' Facebook postings "extremely disturbing."

"The content of the social media posts are antithetical to our administration's values and simply won't be tolerated," said Kenney's spokeswoman Deana Gamble. "He is confident that the Commissioner will discipline officers accordingly when the investigation concludes."

The Philadelphia NAACP has called on Ross to fire officers who are found to have published objectionable material.

While Ross would not say how many officers will be terminated at the end of the department's investigation, he said the posts will cause some law enforcement officials to lose their jobs.

"There are some, sadly," Ross said, "who won't return to service here."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NOEL KING, HOST:

In Philadelphia, more than 70 police officers have been taken off their regular duties patrolling the city's streets. Philly is dealing with a scandal over the release of thousands of offensive social media posts by police officers around the country. Police officials there say they're hoping to contain the damage that was done to public trust. Here's NPR's Bobby Allyn.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Earlier this month, an advocacy group called the Plain View Project published thousands of Facebook posts by police officers in eight cities. In Philadelphia, 330 active officers were found to have publicly posted racist memes, Islamophobic messages, comments celebrating violence and other offensive material. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross, who's usually mild-mannered, sounded downright angry talking about it to reporters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RICHARD ROSS: It makes me sick, to be honest with you. It really makes me sick because we are in a position to know better.

ALLYN: As the city's internal affairs investigates, Ross says he has placed 72 officers on desk duty. He says it's the largest removal of police from the streets in recent memory. Ross says some of the posts were so bad that he's planning to discipline dozens and fire several on the force.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSS: In many ways, you know, we understand how this can tarnish or did tarnish our reputation. But we will work tirelessly to repair that reputation, to improve police community relations, as we are equally disgusted.

ALLYN: While Ross was direct about his disapproval of the posts, he also wanted to make another point. The database flagged some 300 officers out of a force of 6,500.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSS: To assume that everybody is a racist, and everybody is Islamophobic, and everybody is a sexist and all the other things - 'cause they're not. That's just the reality. We are proud of the men and women in this organization. They come to work. They work hard. And they do it in a city that is not easy to do it in.

ALLYN: Paul Hetznecker has been a criminal defense lawyer in the city for more than 30 years. He says the Facebook message scandal is a new reminder of an old problem.

PAUL HETZNECKER: We're all aware of it. There's not anyone that hasn't been connected to the criminal justice system in Philadelphia that isn't aware of the underlying problems of implicit bias and explicit biases these posts reflect that have existed for a long, long period of time, for decades.

ALLYN: Commissioner Ross says, following the data dump, new anti-racist and anti-bias training will be launched department-wide. And officials will issue reminders about police social media policy, which prohibits profanity, discriminatory language or personal insults. Bobby Allyn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.