Protesters and their supporters aren’t the only ones who have gotten vocal on social media in the last two weeks: Across the United States, law enforcement officers have taken to the internet to post denigrating, often racist content about George Floyd and the protests catalyzed by his death (among too many others). And, in a reflection of the recent, way-overdue push for an increase in accountability, they’re actually getting fired for it.
On June 1, Hunter Beckwith of the Fulton, New York police department was fired after posting a meme on her Instagram story that stated Black people only care about Black lives when they are “killed by a white person.” According to Oswego County News Now, Fulton Police Department chief Craig Westbrook thanked the community for being “proactive” and said the post “[diminished] the trust between the police and the public.”
On June 3, Denver Police Department’s Tommy McClay was fired for posting a photo of himself alongside two other officers in bulletproof vests and helmets, with an on-the-nose caption to match: “Let’s start a riot.” The department, one of the first to use tear gas and pepper bullets on protesters, said the post was “inconsistent with the values of the Department [sic]” in a statement on Twitter.
On June 9, Troy University in Troy, Alabama fired its chief of police, John McCall, after alumni surfaced Facebook comments where McCall said Floyd “ABSOLUTELY” played a role in his killing and called protesters criminals while defending Donald Trump’s decision to deploy tear gas on a crowd in front of St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. on June 1. “We are no longer confident in [McCall’s] ability to serve our students, faculty and staff,” university chancellor Jack Hawkins Jr. said in a statement posted to Facebook. “Our goal is to hear how University Police [sic] can best serve our campuses and ensure that their practices align with our values.”
Racist behavior on social media is nothing new for members of the U.S. police force: According to a BuzzFeed News report from 2019 on the Plain View Project, a database of public Facebook content posted by police officers in the U.S., 1 in 5 current police officers and 2 in 5 retired police officers across the country had posted hateful material “displaying bias, applauding violence, scoffing at due process, or using dehumanizing language” on Facebook alone. While BuzzFeed News reported that some departments whose officers appeared in the review contacted the Plain View Project to learn more, it’s clear the issue was far from resolved. It needed a catalyst like the renewed interest in the Movement for Black Lives to bubble back to the surface.
Law enforcement isn’t the only industry that has seen seismic shifts in tolerance of racist comments and behavior. There’s CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman, who resigned after backlash from both a racist joke about George Floyd on Twitter and internal remarks about Floyd’s killing. Bon Appetit editor in chief Adam Rappaport resigned after writer Tammie Teclamariam surfaced a photo of him in brownface, which led to an outpouring of staff accounts of the racist environment he cultivated at the publication. And a handful of people in leadership positions at women’s digital media publications have issued apologies and made leadership changes as a result of Black and brown staffers sharing stories of discrimination via Twitter and Instagram.
All of these reckonings matter, but the one within law enforcement carries a different weight, as the cops being disciplined and ousted are revealed to be in direct violation of the famous edict to “serve and protect” the general public—one that they often lean on in order to justify their own existence.
Other law enforcement officers have faced disciplinary action for expressing similar racist sentiments towards protesters and police brutality victims online. Brooklyn court officer Terri Pinto Napolitano’s Facebook posts depicting the lynching of Barack Obama sparked calls for her termination, according to News 12. So far, she’s been suspended for 30 days without pay and her gun has been confiscated.
JJ Hoffman resigned from his position as fire chief in Lyons, Colorado after he received a formal reprimand for expressing his desire to “open up our high pressure bumper turret” and hose down protesters (a tactic famously deployed against civil rights activists in the 60s) on a Facebook thread.
An unnamed school resource officer in Woodburn, Oregon has been suspended for posting content the Woodburn Police Department chief called “troubling and disturbing” in a comment to Oregon’s KPTV.
Bert Gamin, a lieutenant with the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office in Florida, was suspended from his position after he claimed responsibility for posts from the Brevard County Fraternal Order of Police’s official Facebook page. The comments invited job applications from officers suspended for shoving 75-year-old pacifist Martin Gugino to the ground in Buffalo, New York; officers charged with excessive force in Atlanta, Georgia; and cops from the Minneapolis Police Department. “We are hiring in Florida,” the post read. “We got your back!”
Though Gamin stood by the commentary in an interview with Florida Today, Brevard County sheriff Wayne Ivey told the publication the comments were “extremely distasteful and insensitive to current important and critical issues that are occurring across our country.”
Research from 2018 showed that cops are more likely to brutalize protesters at... protests against police brutality. These events spiritually track with that research: members of law enforcement are reacting in a moment where the country reckons with the way our police force upholds systemic racism in a way that confirms not only that they are, indeed, deeply racist, but feel comfortable and safe expressing those views among their peers. This pattern only lends more credence to the idea that this institution is impossible to reform, rotten as it is to its core.
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