On Friday, protesters gathered outside the Philadelphia Police Department headquarters to denounce more than 300 officers implicated in an appalling new report showing thousands of racist, offensive and violent social media posts allegedly made by current and former officers.
The posts were uncovered by the Plain View Project, which collected thousands of social media posts made by current and former officers in a number of cities across the nation. A team of researchers identified at least 328 local officers who appeared to bash immigrants and Muslims, promote racist stereotypes, identify with right-wing militia groups and glorify police brutality.
The project began after attorneys in Philadelphia learned about Facebook comments made by officers that “appeared to endorse violence, racism and bigotry,” according to the organization’s website. The project collects social media posts from police departments in eight cities, including Phoenix, St. Louis and Dallas.
All the posts were public at the time of the investigation, including one from a Philadelphia police sergeant who appeared to share a meme that read, “Death to Islam.” In another post, a different Philadelphia sergeant allegedly commented that a young suspect should be “taken out back and put down like the rabid animal he is.”
“We want them off the streets right now,” rally organizer and WURD Radio host Solomon Jones said through a loudspeaker at the protest rally on Friday. “We are here to call for change.”
The Philadelphia Police Department has disciplined some of its officers and the department is working with an outside law firm to investigate each case individually, beginning with the “most egregious posts,” said Police Commissioner Richard Ross in a statement. So far, 10 officers have been placed on desk duty and more officers may or may not be disciplined depending on the outcome of the investigation, said Tanya Little, spokesperson for the Police Department.
Ross said police still had to make sure the officers referenced in the project actually made the comments.
“But to be clear, those officers that we have identified that appear to have engaged in explicit bias against any protected class of individual or who advocated any form of violence, will be immediately removed from street duty during the course of these investigations,” Ross said.
This is an important first step. A complete list of employees and posts connected to the department is needed. A thorough but swift investigation must take place. Other police departments included in the database have announced their own investigations.
However, after the investigation, officers found to have offended citizens they have taken an oath to protect and serve must be severely punished, including removal from the Philadelphia Police Department.
Commissioner Ross was right when he said some of the comments that were made would not be protected by the First Amendment.
“When a police officer’s expression of his or her opinions erodes the police department’s ability to do its job and maintain the public’s trust, the department is permitted to act, including disciplining officers when the circumstances allow for it,” Ross said.
It is also important that the Philadelphia Police Department has announced that it is establishing new measures to address the issue while the investigation continues, including anti-racist/anti-bias training and more training on social media, off-duty and race and discrimination policies and an “internal auditing process” to help monitor the social media posts made by police personnel.
The sheer size of the group of offending officers may make it difficult to remove the offending officers all at once. Still, it must be systematically done, especially the individuals who posted the most egregious comments.
City and police officials must send a clear message of zero tolerance of racism and bigotry within the Philadelphia Police Department.