When Police Officers Vent on Facebook
Emily Baker-White’s systemic look at officers on social media found thousands of racist, Islamophobic or otherwise offensive posts. Here’s how (and why) she did it.
“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.
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.
I stumbled upon the public profiles of several officers in that neighborhood, and I was stunned. I thought, “Oh my God, how can this information be public — why are these guys saying this stuff to the world?”
What was in those posts?
The first post that really struck me was a meme that I have seen numerous times since, that shows a police dog being restrained by an officer with its teeth bared, raring to chase after something. And the caption is, “I hope you run, he likes fast food.”
If there was one, that was the image that made me think: I want to know how widespread this is.
And maybe it was the fact that it was a meme. I’m almost positive that that guy didn’t create that meme, right; he got it from somewhere. And how many officers came by that meme and shared it? I still don’t know the answer to that question.
How did you do the project?
The goal was to take a systemic look at a small number of departments. We went and got the roster, the publicly available roster of all the police officers in those jurisdictions.
Then we searched Facebook for folks that had the same name and location as folks on the rosters. Obviously, that wasn’t enough — there are a whole lot of people with each of those names — so when we got a person who appeared to be an officer, we took that profile and looked specifically for some sort of verifying information.
The most common piece of verifying information was simply, “works at Philadelphia Police Department,” “works at Dallas Police Department.” A lot of people didn’t list an employer. For those folks, the next most common way we verified someone was with a picture of that officer in uniform.
We made a list of all the people we verified, and we reviewed all of the public posts made by those people.
What were the criteria you used to determine whether or not a particular post or comment should be flagged?
The overarching question was, “Is this a post that might erode public trust in policing?” And there are a number of subcategories — obviously if a post appears to endorse or celebrate or glorify violence, either vigilante violence or excessive force used by officers — that, we think, would erode public trust in policing. Posts that show bias against a certain group of people, posts that use dehumanizing language, calling people animals or savages or subhuman, that would count.
What did you find out?
Critical mass means a lot of things, but there is enough of this that I can’t see it as a bad apple problem anymore. I see it as a cultural problem.
One of the reasons that I don’t think it’s an individual problem is that these folks are talking to each other. There are a lot of posts that have eight comments underneath them, and three of those comments are by other police officers, and in those long comment threads you often see a kind of piling on. If one guy makes a comment that’s sort of violent, another guy will say, “Oh, that’s not enough, I would have hit him harder.” “I would have shot him.” “I would have killed him.”
It creates a space where officers feel like this is what they should do or think, and I fear that leads more officers to do and think this stuff.
It’s not a statistical sample; it’s not a statistical study.
In the Buzzfeed article, there’s a former police officer in Baltimore who says this language needs to be taken in the context of the job — it may just be expressions of officers who are recognizing the dangers of the profession and saying, “I have your back.” What did you think of that?
I disagree with him on that. I think that, especially in posts that show some sort of bias against a group of people, it’s hard for me to understand how that is showing that I have your back. It might show that “I have your back, you other white officer.” But what does that say to everyone else?
Yes, police officers have an incredibly hard job. There’s probably an incredible amount of PTSD; there’s an incredible amount of stress. But it’s not O.K. then to say, “Let’s go get these animals tonight.”