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72 Philadelphia police officers pulled off the street amid probe into racist Facebook posts

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross speaks with members of the media during a news conference in Philadelphia on June 19. (Matt Rourke/AP)

The Philadelphia Police Department has placed 72 officers on desk duty, and some are likely to be fired, the police commissioner said Wednesday, amid an investigation into racist or otherwise offensive Facebook posts by the city’s officers.

Commissioner Richard Ross said at a news conference that he expected at least “several dozen” of the officers to be disciplined and others fired after a review of their posts, which will be conducted by an independent law firm. He said the department had never in his memory taken so many officers off the street at once.

“We’ve talked about from the outset how disturbing, how disappointing and upsetting these posts are,” Ross told reporters. “They will undeniably impact police-community relations.”

The move is part of the continuing fallout from the publication this month of a database that catalogued thousands of social media posts by current and former officers from several departments across the country. The Plain View Project, an advocacy group launched by Philadelphia lawyer Emily Baker-White, released its findings in an investigative report jointly published by Injustice Watch and BuzzFeed News.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Philadelphia police union President John McNesby called Ross’s remarks “premature and irresponsible” and said the officers “are entitled to due process just like any other citizen.”

A statement posted on the union’s website said that the Fraternal Order of Police will support and represent the officers targeted in the investigation, which it called “overly broad.” McNesby did not immediately respond to a request to elaborate on this criticism.

The police department has hired the law firm Ballard Spahr to review more than 3,100 questionable Facebook posts, and Ross declined to name any of the investigation’s subjects before it is completed. He said the inquiry into 72 of the 330 Philadelphia officers included in the Plain View Project database prioritizes posts “clearly advocating violence or death against any protected class such as ethnicity, national origin, sex, religion and race.”

“We are equally disgusted by many of the posts that you saw,” Ross said, “and that in many cases the rest of the nation saw.”

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The probe has brought renewed attention to an old problem for the city’s law enforcement.

“We’re all aware of it,” Philadelphia defense lawyer Paul Hetznecker told NPR. “There’s not anyone who has been connected to the criminal justice system in Philadelphia who isn’t aware of the underlining problems of implicit bias and explicit bias that these posts reflect that have existed for a long, long time, for decades."

Baker-White told The Washington Post she decided to start the project after she saw troubling 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.”

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“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?”

Working with another staffer and 12 research fellows, Baker-White linked Facebook profiles to names taken from the employee rolls of eight law enforcement agencies across the country. She said the project verified 3,500 current or former officers’ profiles from departments in cities including Phoenix, St. Louis, Dallas and Twin Falls, Idaho.

Ross said Wednesday his entire department will undergo anti-bias and anti-racism training and officials will periodically audit officers’ Facebook accounts. The department’s social media policy prohibits discriminatory language, ethnic slurs and profanity.

He emphasized that the officers targeted in the probe represent a small minority of the force and that the Facebook posts hurt the reputation of the entire 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,” he said. “We will work tirelessly to repair that reputation.”

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