When Police Officers Vent on Facebook

By Shaila Dewan, New York Times

“It’s a good day for a chokehold,” one officer wrote. Another equated black people with dogs. Still another compared women in hijabs to trash bags.

Getty Images.

Getty Images.

These public posts on Facebook, written by police officers in eight departments across the country, were among those identified as offensive by the Plain View Project, a new database chronicling officers’ use of social media. The departments were chosen to reflect a range of sizes and geographic regions: Dallas; Denison, Tex.; Lake County, Fla.; Philadelphia; Phoenix; St. Louis; Twin Falls, Idaho; and York, Pa.

The researchers began with about 14,400 names of officers. Of those, they were able to verify Facebook profiles for about 2,800 current officers and nearly 700 more people who had once worked for those eight departments. About one in five of the current officers, including many in supervisory roles, and more than two in five former officers, used content that was racist, misogynist, Islamophobic or otherwise biased, or that undermined the concept of due process, the project found.

A deeper look by Buzzfeed and Injustice Watch discovered that in Philadelphia, almost a third of the officers whose posts were flagged were the subject of civil rights and brutality complaints that ended in settlements or verdicts for the plaintiffs.

Police departments have long struggled to keep officers from using social media in a way that could undermine police-community relations. There have been episodes in which departments disciplined or tried to discipline officers for embracing Confederate flag imagery or using racist epithets.

The Plain View Project attempts to gauge the extent of the problem in departments across the country. It was the brainchild of Emily Baker-White, a lawyer, who explained in an interview what got her started. Her answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Q. What made you want to do this?

A. Right after law school, I received a yearlong fellowship to work at the capital habeas unit in Philadelphia, and I was assigned to write and investigate a claim related to police brutality.

There was a claim that there was systemic police brutality in this neighborhood — it was a cop-killing case — and that, had the trial attorney presented information about that systemic brutality and how it affected my client, the jury might have chosen to give him a life sentence instead of a death sentence.

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