Chicago, IL - BuzzFeed News acted as if they broke a big story on June 1 when the publication reported that many police officers all across the United States have dark, maybe even warped, senses of humor that many sensitive people find offensive.
Their proof: Hundreds of humorous memes and comments posted to Facebook by law enforcement officers attempting to boost morale or vent their frustrations about policing in millennial America that offended researchers' sensibilities.
BuzzFeed’s source for this bombshell was the Plain View Project (PVP), 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.
PVP found numerous “cop humor” memes that they determined were offensive, but they also targeted posts sharing news that the researchers found offensive.
The standards by which the posts were selected weren’t clearly defined but a deep dive into the database by Blue Lives Matter showed they were as inclusive as possible.
Our research showed that PVP placed officers in their database for sharing articles with which the researchers disagreed, even if the original poster had made no remarks and nobody had commented.
PVP also mined posts that had snarky comments that could be construed as offensive by some readers.
The database allows you to click on any given post and see available information about not only the law enforcement officer who posted it, but also those officers who commented on it, including their badge number and salary.
Each page offers a button that allows horrified readers to share the details of the posts directly to social media.
As if the attempted public shaming of law enforcement officers nationwide wasn’t satisfying enough, Injustice Watch took PVP’s research a step further.
Injustice Watch cross-referenced the database of posts PVP found offensive against lists of officers who had police brutality or civil rights complaints against them, BuzzFeed reported.
They also looked for officers who have had one or more federal civil rights lawsuits and whose Facebook posts had appeared on PVP’s list.
In the many cases, the organization was able to match up offensive posts with numerous officers for whom cities had paid thousands of dollars in settlements.
The database included breakout sections for four major cities - Philadelphia, Dallas, St. Louis, and Phoenix - and three smaller towns including York, Pennsylvania, Twin Falls, Idaho, and Denison, Texas.
Injustice Watch contacted many of those police departments directly, initiating internal affairs investigations that will end up costing them in money and manpower by the time they’re finished.
What PVP and Injustice Watch did not take into account in their research was the fact that first responders in general are known for their gallows humor.
Numerous studies have shown that humor helps police officers to show up every day and do a job that is often dark and disturbing.
“Emergency workers frequently find themselves in unpleasant and unpredictable situations at odds with the heroic status and image presented in television dramas,” said Dr. Sarah Charman, an expert with the University of Portsmouth (UK) Institute of Criminal Justice Studies.
Charman has extensively studied the dark humor of police and medics, according to the Journal of Emergency Medical Services.
“They regularly deal with death or near-death. They face messy and mortifying situations the rest of us never have to encounter,” she said. “By normalising a situation through humour, a stressful encounter can be made more manageable - humour allows people to control feelings of fear or vulnerability.”
Rolf Granér, an associate professor at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden, studied police humor and said it’s part of the “us against them” mentality for a professional that is frequently unpopular with the people they encounter in the course of their work, ScienceNordic reported.
Granér summarized his findings for a Nordic police research publication and said he found that gallows humor helped officers deal with the drama of traumatic events and distance themselves.
He said that dry, cynical language was a defense mechanism against getting too involved in the misery and suffering they witness on daily basis, ScienceNordic reported.
The study noted that police humor is often directed at other people.
Police “make jokes about people they meet in their work, including suspects and annoying bystanders. It creates a distance,” Granér said.
Regardless of the findings of experts who’ve studied how humor can positively impact first responders, Injustice Watch wanted to see the authors of the posts in the PVP database officially punished for offending them.
In Philadelphia, for example, Injustice Watch shared seven specific names with officials at the Philadelphia Police Department.
Philadelphia PD opened up an investigation based on the information, BuzzFeed reported.
“We have reviewed the social media transcriptions you provided, and find many of them to be not only incongruent with our standards and policies, but also troubling on a human level,” Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross said in a statement.
That investigation will likely result in new social media policies for the department and may possibly force the early retirements of a number of highly-qualified officers whose knowledge is desperately needed by the beleaguered police department even if officials don’t appreciate their off-duty senses of humor.
Perhaps more surprising than the posts PVP found offensive is the fact that so many police officers nationwide have failed to take advantage of Facebook privacy settings that would have prevented PVP from finding their posts and putting them on the list of offenders.
And even if an officer has locked down his or her own Facebook page, a carelessly posted snarky comment on the wide-open page of a colleague was enough to get them – and their salary information – listed in the PVP database.
Philadelphia police aren’t the only officers feeling the backlash.
BuzzFeed reported that Phoenix police, St. Louis police, and Dallas police have also opened investigations based on the social media posts reported to them by Injustice Watch.
Even retired officers noted in the database aren't off the hook. Soon a search of the PVP database will be standard for all background investigations, including post-retirement careers.
Before too long, however, PVP’s database may become more a mark of a seasoned law enforcement officer than a scarlet letter.
Its overly-broad and not-clearly-defined criteria mean the database was subject to the personal biases of its creators and is completely unreliable, except as a political litmus test.
For example, a single appearance of the popular Punisher skull graphic was enough to get many officers added to the database.
Although many associate the Punisher logo with the Marvel comic character of the same name, for law enforcement officers and the military it serves as a warning to the bad guys that the good guys are coming for them.
PVP and Injustice Watch find that message offensive.