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Offensive Social Media Posts By Police Lead To Internal Investigations In Several Cities

Jun 21, 2019
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Police departments are reminding officers of their social media policies after the publication of thousands of offensive posts by cops on a website earlier this month. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the scandal is testing the boundaries between free speech and police credibility.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: The posts were collected by something called the Plain View Project. They looked for officers' public Facebook accounts, then collected the posts and comments that they believed merited public scrutiny. Some of the posts endorse violence against criminal suspects; others are plainly racist. In one comment, an officer calls LeBron James an orangutan.

REUBEN JONES: To be that arrogant to believe that you could say stuff that's so callous and not be held accountable, I just - it's unbelievable to me.

KASTE: Reuben Jones works for a gun violence reduction program in Philadelphia, one of the city's whose cops were found making these posts.

JONES: People are up in arms. People are angry and rightfully so. And people do not trust the police.

KASTE: Jones wants to see cops fired over this, and some will be, says Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross. But first the department is having a law firm review the posts on the group's website because they're not all fireable offenses.

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RICHARD ROSS: You know, and I'm not trying to minimize any posts that were in this. But there are some that were captured that we quite don't understand why they were on there, you know, that some of them were - I don't want to call it innocent, but I just want to say that we're trying to figure out why some of them are on there.

KASTE: And this is where things get complicated for police departments. Laura Scarry is a Chicago attorney that specializes in civil rights cases involving the police.

LAURA SCARRY: Police officers don't give up their First Amendment rights by the mere fact that they're police officers.

KASTE: She says officers have the right to comment on matters of public concern, like politics or societal questions. But at the same time, their bosses can tell them not to discredit the department. So it's all very case-by-case.

SCARRY: You can have two police officers that voice their frustration over a comment that was made by the Black Lives Matter movement, and depending on the verbiage, depending on the content and depending on the context, it could be protected, but then it may not be protected.

KASTE: There are some practical considerations here. Cops who've said racist things in the past may not have credibility on the stand. Earlier this week, the prosecutor in St. Louis said she'd no longer bring cases or seek warrants based on the police work of seven officers whose posts appear in the Plain View database. On a website for law enforcement called PoliceOne, retired police chief Joel Schultz wrote a column headlined "Is It Time To Scrub Facebook?"

JOEL SCHULTZ: It's a super frustrating time to be in law enforcement and a great time to be retired.

KASTE: Many of the posts in the Plain View website date back to the time right after Ferguson and their angry reactions to anti-police sentiment and hostile crowds. Schultz says work stress does not excuse being a jerk, as he puts it, but he hopes these posts will be seen in context.

SCHULTZ: You know, you say maybe it's a bad apple. Well, no, maybe it was a good apple on a bad day.

KASTE: Phillip Atiba Goff of The Center for Police Equity thinks the problem runs deeper. Yes, he says some of the posts in the database are gallows humor - cops blowing off steam - but others cross a line.

PHILLIP ATIBA GOFF: Some of those posts are so racist, they're so bigoted that it's difficult to imagine how a person who would think it was OK to say that even with their friends should be tasked with having a badge and a gun and the ability to take away life and liberty in the name of the state.

KASTE: He says even if only a few of the cops in a department are talking like this, it undermines public trust in the police.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF GACHA BAKRADZE'S "RIVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.