Police departments can dismiss employees for fraternizing with hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan. But what a department should — and can — do gets a little murkier when officers belong to Facebook groups that deal in hate, or when they share hateful, violent, bigoted material online.
Police officials in three cities — Phoenix, Philadelphia, and St. Louis — have moved more than 100 officers to desk duty after their racist and homophobic Facebook posts were brought to light earlier this month. A group of lawyers in Philadelphia compiled thousands of screenshots by cops in eight jurisdictions, and published them in a database titled “Plain View Project.” In the posts, retired and active-duty officers are shown spewing violent, racist vitriol against minorities, protesters and the LGBTQ community.
The posts in the database run the gamut from sharing images of the “Punisher” skull, which has become closely associated with the pro-police “Blue Lives Matter” movement, all the way to advocating violence against minorities.
They’ve forced police departments to establish their own parameters for deciding what sort of bias should disqualify an officer from doing their job.
“We have a Fuhrman problem”
On a practical level, an officer’s publicized bigotry can create real headaches for prosecutors. This famously played out during the 1994 trial of OJ Simpson, who was accused of murdering his ex-wife and her friend.
“Today someone is much more likely to be part of an echo chamber on the internet than they are to belong to some organized group.”
Former Los Angeles police detective Mark Fuhrman was called to testify about a bloody glove he’d recovered at Simpson’s estate. Defense attorneys pointed to Fuhrman’s alleged past use of the n-word, arguing he was motivated by racial bias and trying to frame Simpson. Fuhrman testified that he’d never used that term, but he was later charged with perjury after 13 hours of taped interviews — in which he repeatedly used the n-word — were entered into evidence.
“We may see a review with regards to prosecutions in the past if, going forward, they decide ‘we cannot credibly bring this officer into court to make a case, because we have a Fuhrman problem’,” said Levin. “[The posts] are up there, and publicly available. They could torpedo cases.”
St. Louis Circuit Attorney (chief prosecutor) Kimberly Gardner banned 22 officers included in the Plain View Project database from submitting cases they worked on to her office for prosecution. Seven of the 22 will be permanently banned. That means Gardner won’t pursue charges based on their investigations, won’t issue search warrants at their requests, and won’t even look at cases that hinge on their testimony going forward. In short: Their credibility is shot.
Gardner also plans to retroactively review cases that the seven banned officers have worked on in the past, a spokesperson for her office confirmed to VICE News.
“I think there's a strong argument that any time an officer's conduct or comments suggest that their perceptions and conclusions are shaped by unacceptable biases, it makes sense to critically review both their past work and their future work,” said Seth Stoughton, a former police officer and an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina’s School of Law.
Philadelphia’s police commissioner announced last week that 72 officers had been placed on desk duty pending a full investigation. A spokesperson for the department said Monday that there had been no developments since. Phoenix’s police chief placed several officers on desk duty and is investigating the posts. Dallas’ police department says a review is ongoing.
Police officials in York City, Pennsylvania, looked into the posts and found that only 11 were attributed to active-duty officers. Two posts that were considered the most concerning were made by an officer who was employed elsewhere at the time. “In looking at the five remaining posts, they were found to not advocate violence against citizens,” York City’s mayor and police chief said in a joint statement. The remaining police departments included in the database — Denison, Texas; Lake County, Florida; and Twin Falls, Idaho — did not return a request for comment.
24-hour online hate rallies
In 1985, a federal court of appeals held that the sheriff of Jacksonville, Florida, was right to dismiss an employee over his membership in the Klan. Judges agreed with the sheriff that membership in a white supremacist hate group like the Klan was incompatible with police work and would undermine the integrity of the department.
“Efficient law enforcement requires mutual respect, trust, and support,” wrote Judge Paul H. Roney in his opinion. “The evidence is uncontradicted that Jacksonville’s black community in large part would categorically distrust the Sheriff’s office if a known Klan member were permitted to stay on in any position.”
In keeping with that legal precedent, two Virginia police officers were fired earlier this year after antifascists outed their ties to white nationalist groups.
But experts and law enforcement officials say that the shape of extremism has evolved since the 1980s, and it’s now harder to draw a line in the sand.
“Bigotry has changed,” said Brian Levin, who leads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. “Today someone is much more likely to be part of an echo chamber on the internet than they are to belong to some organized group.”
Back in the ’80s, investigators were typically looking at nationally organized groups, which were structured hierarchically and led by “charismatic ideologues,” said the FBI’s counterterrorism chief, Michael McGarrity, at a recent congressional hearing on white supremacy. Today, the far-right is diffuse, comprised of individuals who self-radicalize online.
“Courts have ruled that active participation in hate groups is grounds for dismissal,” said Levin. “But what the heck is active participation in a hate group in an era when certain portions of social media are 24-hour hate rallies?”
Police officials in St. Louis, Philadelphia, and Phoenix say they’re handling the officers’ posts on a case-by-case basis, trying to determine which are acceptable and which are not.
“I think you’ll see some attempt to differentiate between people who might have posted items sparsely, as a joke or for shock, versus those who have a systemic or deeply rooted type of prejudice,” said Levin.
“This is a disaster for community relations.”
Investigators tasked with looking into the posts might consider how frequently an officer posted, whether they had a history of making similar comments in real life, or if they had a track record of disciplinary problems, said Stoughton.
But Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police and a homicide sergeant with the St. Louis Police Department, questioned departments’ commitment to addressing the underlying problems.
She describes bigotry among some officers as an open secret.
“We had reported quite a few of them repeatedly. It’s unfortunate that it’s now playing out in plain view. We need our chief to start addressing these deep, embedded racial issues that we have in our police department.”
And what’s more, experts say that police officers’ public expressions of bigotry is enormously damaging to an already fragile relationship between police departments and the communities they serve. In 2018 alone, police killed 992 people — a disproportionate number of whom were black. And in some major metropolitan cities, like Philadelphia, local officials are making genuine efforts to reform their police departments in light of increased scrutiny over police brutality, particularly against minority communities.
“This is a disaster for community relations,” said Levin. “I think this is what happens when you have modern social media technology — combining with old hatreds — that air all this dirty laundry on the front page of your local paper.”
Cover: Community members and activist give testimony on a resolution regarding controversial social media posts by officers with the Philadelphia Police Department at City Council, in Philadelphia, PA, on June 20, 2019. Commissioner Richard Ross announced that 72 officers were taken off streets duty after an investigation by the Pain View Project into racist posts by police officers. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)