Holding Cops Accountable With a Database That Tracks Racist Comments Online

It’s not a happy day when you discover that groups of the police force are grotesquely racist, discriminative and just plain nasty. This is what Buzzfeed and Injustice Watch revealed when they launched an investigation into The Plain View Project, a database filing offensive public posts and comments made by retired and active police officers.

The Plain View Project

This project was founded by Emily Baker-White who had witnessed first-hand unacceptable behavior from some of her peers. During her time as a public defender in Philadelphia, she stumbled across a meme that was circulating around a group of police officers that gave her cause for alarm. This meme depicted a police dog running after a suspect, aggressively bearing its teeth with the text above reading, “I hope you run – he likes fast food.”

Baker-White spoke about her initial shock: “I found that meme really alarming.” The fact that it was a meme “made me wonder how much more of this is out there. How many more police officers are posting things like this on the Internet?” Baker-White began wondering how often this kind of material was shared publicly. After some digging, she found out that it was a common occurrence. This is when she founded The Plain View Project.

The project’s website states its purpose plainly. It reads: “We present these posts and comments because we believe that they could undermine public trust and confidence in our police. In our view, people who are subject to decisions made by law enforcement may fairly question whether these online statements about race, religion, ethnicity and the acceptability of violent policing—among other topics—inform officers’ on-the-job behaviors and choices.”

In essence, the project is here to protect people against discrimination from the police force and to make people aware that the body there to protect them might not be as trustworthy as it seems.

What these officers are saying

The site allows you to filter offensive posts down to the city, officer ranks and even to the specific officer. By selecting the ‘All’ button, you are greeted with over 5,000 results, complete with the original post and criminalizing comments. This is the first result, a Facebook post written by an active police officer: “MSgt. (L.T.) Clayton’s killer has been captured! Looks like he may have put up a struggle. He doesn’t look so tough now does he?” And that’s tame compared to the rest. Other officers joined in the fun, one commenting, “Awww did the little piece of shit get tuned up? Bastard is damn lucky he isn’t on his way to the medical examiner’s office.” Another officer from Phoenix wrote some equally despicable material, saying quite simply “It’s a good day for a chokehold.”

Another case showed a former officer from York, Pa. sharing the news of a black man who was arrested for killing a police detective with the words, “Too bad this MF didn’t resist and meet a very violent and painful demise. Would have saved the taxpayers a LOT of money.”

What this investigation discovered was that a mammoth 1 in 5 officers that could be identified on Facebook were making offensive comments. Emily Hoerner and Rick Tulsky from Injustice Watch outlined how they identified inappropriate material. Comments deemed offensive were “displaying bias, applauding violence, scoffing at due process, or using dehumanizing language.” Baker-White added that these officers were often attacking minority groups, depicting them as “animals” or “savages”.

Further investigation showed the true extent of this ugly underworld. These police officers had been posting racist memes, spreading destructive conspiracy theories and threatened suspects with violence and sometimes death. It’s police brutality without any actual bloodshed.

Baker-White was deeply saddened by what she read. “One of the most disheartening things in the posts we saw are the comments under them,” she mused. “Some of them are by citizens, and some are by police officers. There’s very much a pile-on culture, where someone may say something violent and the folks under that will ramp it up and say something even more violent or discriminatory. The feedback loop there has led a lot of people to lean into their worst instincts.”

It’s true what they say; violence breeds violence.

The response

Plain View Project implored that action be taken and bring these officers to justice. Their website makes their intentions clear, saying, “We believe that these statements could erode civilian trust and confidence in police and we hope police departments will investigate and address them immediately.”

Law enforcement took the matter very seriously and set about identifying the officers sharing offensive content. On June 4th, the Washington Post shared news of the investigation, reporting that four of the eight police departments with officers in the Plain View Project database were under investigation. The good work continued with Kim Gardner, St. Louis Circuit Attorney who notified the public safety director and police chief that she had added 22 active officers to the “banned” list, seven of whom are “permanently banned”. They are now investigating the other 15 officers “to determine conditions and reinstatement of their ability to present cases.”

In Philadelphia, the mayor, district attorney and police commissioner openly showed disgust at these posts to the Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as Commissioner Richard Ross who promised he would “get to the bottom of it”. Since then, seven police officers’ social media posts are under investigation; over 300 police officers have been singled out by PVP for their posts on social media and 50 of them been demoted to desk duty. Hoerner and Tulsky unveiled a shocking statistic that almost a third of Philadelphia officers were facing civil rights lawsuits.

Baker-White was heartened by how people responded to the Plain View Project but there is still a lot of work to be done. “I hope that police departments make changes to increase accountability, but also to try to shift culture,” she said.

Defending the officers

Not everyone is convinced that these officers are in the wrong. The main argument is that what the officers are posting on social media doesn’t reflect their integrity whilst on duty. Some argue that racist and discriminatory beliefs can be suppressed whilst in the field and don’t come into play in everyday interactions. Another line of defense is that these officers are not representative of the force as a whole; after monitoring over 3,500 Facebook accounts, 5,000 inappropriate comments were found. However, both these defenses are made redundant when you consider that more and more officers are joining hate groups on Facebook.

The names of these groups? White Lives Matter and DEATH TO ISLAM UNDERCOVER are just a couple of examples. One individual, a guard at Angola Prison in Louisiana, belonged to 56 of these groups, including one called BAN THE NAACP.

Thankfully, police departments across the country are taking the matter very seriously and will be launching investigations internally in their own departments.

Photo credits: Frontpage Mag, CBS News, wired.com, TNW, abc.net.au.

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