Philadelphia, PA – Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross announced on Wednesday that he was placing 72 police officers on administrative leave while they continued to investigate social media posts the department considered inappropriate.
The announcement came several weeks after the Plain View Project (PVP) launched a database that included more than 5,000 Facebook posts made by identified members of law enforcement all across the country, WCAU reported.
The group claimed at their June 1 launch that they had put more than 300 Philadelphia officers into the database for making racist or insensitive social media posts.
The city hired a local law firm to investigate PVP’s claims and review the posts that were placed in the database, WCAU reported.
PVP is a research enterprise launched by Injustice Watch to identify thousands of Facebook posts made by police officers nationwide that might offend somebody.
Injustice Watch is a non-profit organization that considers itself the legacy of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University School of Law and Northwestern University’s Medill Watchdog program, according to its website.
Its mission statement said the organization is made up of a team of “highly accomplished investigative reporters, full-time reporting fellows, and talented interns” and claims to combine “data journalism with conventional reporting to delve far deeper into crucial criminal and social justice issues than can traditional news organizations.”
Since its launch in the fall of 2017, PVP has been scouring the Internet for any hint of offense in any post or comment by any user they could identify as a police officer, active duty and retired.
Then they created a database of more than 5,000 Facebook posts they felt “could undermine public trust and confidence in police," according to their website.
A quick scroll through the database made it abundantly clear that PVP’s researchers did not appreciate “cop humor” in any form.
The Philadelphia PD was one of several departments who were singled out by the PVP study, largely because their roster of officers was publicly available and therefore easy for researchers to cross-reference in identifying posts and comments made by cops.
“We’ve talked about from the outset how disturbing, how disappointing, and upsetting these posts are and how they will undeniably impact police-community relations," Commissioner Ross told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday. "We’re not naive to the fact and nor are we dismissive of it."
Among the flagged posts was one by a sergeant who commented that a young suspect should be "taken out back and put down like the rabid animal he is," WCAU reported.
Falling into the “insensitive” category, another Philadelphia police sergeant is under investigation for posting a meme that read "Death to Islam."
The vast majority of the posts reported by the Plain View Project involved simply sharing news articles.
Others shared memes joking about violence.
The law firm hired by the city, Ballard Spahr, and the city’s law department are investigating the social media posts with the Philadelphia PD’s Internal Affairs Unit, WCAU reported.
Ballard Spahr is specifically checking to see which posts are constitutionally protected speech.
"An example would be an opinion on the matter of public concern that may be unpopular but does not include threats of violence or pejorative language against any protected class," Commissioner Ross said. "If the speech is not protected by the First Amendment, the case will proceed with appropriate discipline."
The commissioner said that when the investigation was finished, some officers could be suspended for only a few days while others might be terminated, WCAU reported.
"I'm not prepared to tell you at this point who's being disciplined and how many may be terminated, but I can tell you with a degree of certainty that there are some people who will meet with that fate," he said.
Additionally, Commissioner Ross said the police department is creating a training video that all officers will have to watch that will outline social media and off-duty policies in regards to race, ethnicity, code and conduct, WCAU reported.
"There’s no question that 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 good relationships with now," he said
Philadelphia PD was also developing a way to inspect officers’ social media posts for the purposes of identifying potential problems, the commissioner said.
They plan to work with the Anti-Defamation League and other outside groups that provide anti-bias and anti-racism training, WCAU reported.
The Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) weighed in on Commissioner Ross’s announcement and said some of his assertions were premature.
“It’s premature and irresponsible for the commissioner to tell the public that police officers will be fired without a complete investigation into officers’ social media use,” FOP President John McNesby said. "Our officers are entitled to due process just like any other citizen."
FOP members have "rights under the contract and free-speech” and McNesby said the union’s attorneys were working to make sure their members were protected, according to WCAU.
"We will support and represent those officers during this overly-broad social-media investigation," he said. "Far too many officers have been taken off the street during a time of increased violence in our city."
But a Philadelphia minister had said that he though the problem was actually bigger than what the police department has so far acknowledged.
"Over 300 people, that is an incredible number," said the Reverend Mark Tyler of Mother Bethel AME Church. "You have to imagine that there are a considerable number of people who are like them, who hold the same beliefs who are just not crazy enough to put it on social media. This is a cultural problem within our department that has to be addressed.”