Philadelphia police, law firm, to investigate officers' social media posts

The Philadelphia police department has asked an outside law firm to assist with investigations into officers facing discipline for posts and comments they’ve allegedly made on social media.

Departments in five states have launched investigations after posts were uncovered by the Plain View Project.  The Plain View Project is made up of a team of researchers who spent two years looking at the personal Facebook accounts of police officers from Arizona to Florida.

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.

Among the posts by members of the Philadelphia police department, a sergeant is accused of commenting that a young suspect should be "taken out back and put down like the rabid animal he is."

Thursday, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross announced he the department had sought assistance from an outside law firm to investigate these cases, after consulting with the city’s law department. The cases will be investigated individually before final decisions regarding disciplinary action are made.

“The Law Department is instructing the law firm to conduct its review expeditiously and to review the most egregious posts first,” Commissioner Ross said in a statement.

Commissioner Ross added that step one in the investigative process would be to verify that the officers identified in the report actually made the comments attributed to them.

“But to be clear, those officers that we have identified that appear to have engaged in explicit bias against any protected class of individual or who advocated any form of violence, will be immediately removed from street duty during the course of these investigations,” Ross said.

Ross says the department “cognizant of the First Amendment implications here. But at the same time, it appears that certain comments were not constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.”

"Obviously, some of the posts are very disturbing," said Emily Baker-White, a lawyer who launched the Plain View Project in 2017. The work, she said, revealed a troubling online subculture that threatens to undermine public confidence in law enforcement.

"It gets in the way of officers' ability to protect everybody out there," she said. "My biggest fear is that there are people who are seeing these posts online, who are interacting with these officers, who think, 'The police might not be there for me because I pray differently than they do, or I look differently, or I have a different immigration status.'"

Baker-White, a former federal public defender in Philadelphia, got the idea for Plain View after she was assigned to a police brutality case and found an inflammatory social media post by one of the officers involved.

“When a police officer’s expression of his or her opinions erodes the Police Department’s ability to do its job and maintain the public’s trust, the department is permitted to act, including disciplining officers when the circumstances allow for it,” Ross said. “Police officers know they are held to a higher standard, and cannot engage in careless or outright reprehensible conduct, regardless whether they are on or off duty.”

The department says the investigation is only one step towards addressing such conduct, and therefore will be implementing the following proactive measures:

- Anti-Racist/Anti-Bias Training for all police personnel;

- Additional roll call training on the social media, off-duty and race and discrimination policies; and

- Employing, in the near future, an internal auditing process to monitor social media posts by police personnel

The Associated Press contributed to this report.