Philadelphia, PA – The Philadelphia Police Department (PPD) announced Thursday that it was firing 13 police officers who posted offensive comments on Facebook.
Philadelphia Police Chief Richard Ross stood beside Mayor Jim Kenney at a press conference on July 18 and announced the largest number of officers terminated at one time in recent history, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The unmitigated chaos began after the Plain View Project, in conjunction with social watchdog group Injustice Watch, 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.
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.
On June 19, Chief Ross announced that of the 328 officers reviewed for posting problematic content, he had placed 72 on paid administrative leave pending further investigation.
“An Internal Affairs investigation was immediately initiated,” the chief explained at the press conference on Thursday. “Internal Affairs identified and prioritized those posts which clearly advocated violence or death against any protected class, such as ethnicity, national origin, sex religion, and race, or any speech advocating for supporting crimes affecting the integrity, honesty, and or trustworthiness of the police department.”
Then the police department hired an outside law firm to help them.
“As the Internal Affairs investigation proceeded, the law department contracted with the law firm Ballard Spahr to review each of the posts to determine if the posts were constitutionally protected,” Chief Ross told reporters.
Then he spelled out the step-by-step process the department has followed and explained the range of discipline that would be meted out based on the gravity of the officers' offenses.
Chief Ross said that 56 of the 72 officers who were investigated would face discipline ranging from a reprimand to a 30-day unpaid suspension, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
The chief told reporters that many of the officers would receive discipline consistent with a violation of the established social media policy, meaning as little as a reprimand up to a five-day unpaid suspension.
He said a group of 17 officers posted material that was “not only offensive and unprotected”… but which “demonstrates the officers have little or no regard for their positions as police officers.”
Chief Ross said 13 of the 17 would be suspended for 30 days with intent to dismiss, meaning their employment would be terminated.
He said the remaining four would receive a 30-day unpaid suspension.
According to the chief, the officers who are being terminated had all posted material condoning violence, encouraging police brutality, or promoting memes or other content that was considered anti-Islamic, homophobic, or racist, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“I continue to be very angered and disappointed by these posts, many of which, in my view, violate the basic tenets of human decency,” the chief told reporters.
Chief Ross said the PPD needed to “move past this ridiculous hate that just consumes this country and has done so for centuries.”
He said the police department was starting a series of anti-bias and anti-racism training sessions in consultation with the Anti-Defamation League.
The chief said they were revamping PPD’s social media policy and would be reviewing policies from other police departments and military branches to help craft the new policy.
The department will also be taking steps to ensure that they’re monitoring their officers’ social media activity in the future.
“PPD will purchase or develop a pro-active mechanism to audit officer-related social media to identify potential problems with officer postings, i.e. data mining software. The police department will contract an outside expert to conduct anti-bias and anti-racist training for all sworn personnel,” Chief Ross explained.
The chief said that what some officers had posted hurt not only the Philadelphia police, but the law enforcement community in general.
“That is disheartening in 2019 to know that we still have people who have these views,” he said. “That not only have these views, but that would take to social media, in a very public place, to expound on such views in a way that is absolutely sickening. I understand the dismay that the public would have because we have it as well.”