Several cities have launched investigations into the online conduct of their police officers after a database revealed thousands of racist and otherwise offensive social media posts by current or former members of law enforcement.
The Plain View Project (PVP) has since 2017 examined the public profiles of police officers from eight jurisdictions. Its findings were detailed in an investigative feature published jointly by Injustice Watch and BuzzFeed News on Saturday.
After matching published employee rosters with Facebook profiles, and examining the public posts those individuals made, the project found thousands of Facebook posts and comments that ran the gamut from racist memes to conspiracy theories to bombastic expressions of violence. Several expressed the desire to use a taser or deadly force on suspects, actions that have brought law enforcement under scrutiny in recent years and sparked nationwide protests against police brutality.
“Instead of hands up don’t shoot, how about pull your pants up don’t loot!” read a meme that depicted the late African American singer Sammy Davis Jr. in an apparent dig at the Black Lives Matter movement. The image was shared on Facebook in 2015 by a captain in the Philadelphia Police Department.
“What a POS, firing squad,” a man PVP identified as a Philadelphia police officer commented beneath a news story about a man who shot an elderly woman.
“Too bad this MF didn’t resist and meet a very violent and painful demise. Would have saved the taxpayers a LOT of money,” reads a Facebook post by a man identified as a former officer from York, Pa., who was sharing the news of a black man’s arrest in the killing of a police detective.
“We believe that these statements could erode civilian trust and confidence in police,” PVP’s website states, “and we hope police departments will investigate and address them immediately.”
Several departments whose officers were scrutinized by the project have announced that they will do just that.
Philadelphia’s mayor, police commissioner and district attorney all condemned the posts in comments to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Police Commissioner Richard Ross told the paper that he would “get to the bottom of it,” and the paper reported that seven Philadelphia police officers were under investigation for their social media posts.
Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams called the posts by officers in her department “embarrassing and disturbing” in a statement to TV station Fox 10. She said she had recently become aware of the database and had asked the department’s professional standards bureau to look into the matter.
In St. Louis, Metropolitan Police spokeswoman Evita Caldwell told the Riverfront Times in an email that the issue “has been forwarded to our Internal Affairs Division [and] is being reviewed for any violations of our policies.”
The Plain View Project also examined police departments in Dallas; Denison, Tex.; and Twin Falls, Idaho; and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office in Florida. The Lake County Sheriff’s Office told Injustice Watch and BuzzFeed that it was investigating.
The project’s founder, Emily Baker-White, told The Washington Post that she saw alarming Facebook posts by police during a fellowship at the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia. While working on a police brutality case, she found several public Facebook pages, linked to officers involved in the case, that contained offensive memes and messages.
One image stood out to her: a police dog baring its teeth, with superimposed text that read, “I hope you run, he likes fast food.”
“I found that meme really alarming,” she said. And because it was a meme, “that made me wonder how much more of this is out there. How many more police officers are posting things like this on the Internet?”
Along with a second staffer and about 12 research fellows, Baker-White obtained employee rolls from eight departments chosen for variations in size and geography. The group matched about 14,400 listed officers to public Facebook profiles. It was not possible to find everyone, she said, but in the end the project found and reviewed 3,500 current or former officers’ profiles that it could verify using criteria that included a matching name, pictures of the individual in uniform, an employer listed on the Facebook page, or a poster’s self-identification in posts or comments. Baker-White says she personally made the final decision about whether to include an individual in the database.
Baker-White said three major trends emerged in the posts she and her colleagues collected: posts that seemed to endorse violence by officers or members of the public, posts that appeared to show bias against minority groups, and dehumanizing language that referred to protesters or people of color as “animals” or “savages.”
“One of the most disheartening things in the posts we saw are the comments under them,” Baker-White said. “Some of them are by citizens, and some are by police officers. There’s very much a pile-on culture, where someone may say something violent and the folks under that will ramp it up and say something even more violent or discriminatory. The feedback loop there has led a lot of people to lean into their worst instincts."
She said she was pleased that departments were reacting to the Plain View Project, but she wanted to see substantial change.
“I hope that police departments make changes to increase accountability,” Baker-White said, “but also to try to shift culture.”