72 officers off streets amid probe into social media posts
PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Police Commissioner Richard Ross says 72 Philadelphia police officers have been placed on administrative duty amid an initial investigation into a national group’s accusation of officers in at least five states posting racist and anti-Muslim comments on social media.
Ross said he believed at least “several dozen” people would be disciplined and he expects some to be fired. The commissioner said the internal affairs division prioritized posts “clearly advocating violence or death against any protected class such as ethnicity, national origin, sex, religion and race.” An independent law firm had been hired to determine whether posts were constitutionally protected before any discipline is imposed.
“I am not prepared to tell you at this point who’s being disciplined and how many may be terminated, but I can tell you with a degree of certainty there are some people who will meet with that fate,” Ross said Wednesday.
John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia police union, said the Fraternal Order of Police leadership and attorneys will protect the officers’ free speech.
“It’s premature and irresponsible for the commissioner to tell the public that police officers will be fired without a complete investigation into officers’ social media use,” he said in an emailed statement. “Our officers are entitled to due process just like any other citizen.”
The posts were uncovered by a team of researchers who spent two years looking at the personal Facebook accounts of police officers from Arizona to Florida. They said they found officers bashing immigrants and Muslims, promoting racist stereotypes, identifying with right-wing militia groups and, especially, glorifying police brutality. All the posts were public.
“We’ve talked about, from the outset, how disturbing, how disappointing and upsetting these posts are, and they will undeniably impact police-community relations,” Ross said. “There’s no question that this puts us in a position to work even harder than we already do to cultivate relationships with neighborhoods and individual groups who we struggle to work with or struggle to maintain relationships with now.”
Ross also announced other steps, including measures to monitor social media posts by officers, anti-bias training for officers and preparation of a training video.
“I can’t think of any other investigation that we’ve undertaken, at least in my 30 years, where that many people were taken off the street at one time,” Ross said. He said he was a “dinosaur” who didn’t use social media, but he couldn’t understand how police officers who come into contact with many different people — and who were themselves part of a diverse recruiting class — could make what he called “ridiculous assertions” about whole groups of people.
“It really makes me sick, because we are in a position to know better, we are in a position by virtue of what we do every day, and how many people you see in different walks of life that people are the same — people want the same thing out of life,” he said. “It angers me beyond belief, because it just makes our job far more difficult than it needs to be.”
Following publication of the alleged posts, St. Louis’ top prosecutor added 22 more names to a list of officers in that city who are not allowed to bring cases to her office.