In 2017, Philadelphia Police Officer Reuben Ondarza updated his Facebook profile picture to depict a bruised and bloodied black man.
Beneath it, he commented: “They always crying.”
Two of his fellow officers appeared to chime in.
“Him hurted me with him hand,” Kevin Lewis wrote. Milord Celce Jr. then responded with a series of laughing emojis.
The alleged exchange among the officers was captured by the Plain View Project, an online database published Saturday that cataloged what it said were hundreds of racist or otherwise offensive Facebook comments made by police in eight jurisdictions across the country, including Philadelphia.
Ondarza, Lewis, and Celce are among seven Philadelphia officers whose postings have been under investigation by the department’s Internal Affairs unit for potential violations of the social-media policy governing cops. Their names were turned over to the department in February by reporters from Injustice Watch, a nonprofit news organization working on a story about the database.
In all, the database highlighted about 330 active Philadelphia officers whose Facebook posts the Plain View Project organizers said could be biased, dehumanizing, or supportive of violence, or could “erode civilian trust and confidence in police.”
Police Commissioner Richard Ross said department officials did not have access to the full database until it was published Saturday and were reviewing all the posts it included from Philadelphia officers. He called some “vile and disgusting," and pledged, "We have an obligation to get to the bottom of it.”
Ross said the probe of the seven officers’ postings had lasted months because a review of social media profiles can include scouring years’ worth of messages, and proving that the officers controlled the accounts and that they posted specific messages, some of which can be deleted or hidden. All of that is done while also assessing whether the posts violate the department’s social-media policy, which says in part that employees “are prohibited from using ethnic slurs, profanity, personal insults; material that is harassing, defamatory, fraudulent, or discriminatory.”
Each of the officers remains on duty as the investigation continues.
“We’ve got to connect all the dots," Ross said. “We will do it as quickly as we can, but we want to get it right.”
Emily Hoerner, one of the Injustice Watch reporters who shared the list of seven officers with the department in the winter, said the officers it named along with Ondarza, Lewis, and Celce were Christian Fenico, Robert Oakes, Mark Palma, and Michael Melvin. Injustice Watch named five of them in its story Saturday.
According to the database, the seven officers combined to make more than 125 posts or comments that the Plain View Project flagged as offensive.
Court records suggest that they also were active on the street. Between 2010 and 2018, according to an Inquirer review of court data, the seven were listed as arresting officers in 365 cases.
Defense lawyers in the city have said the database could spur defendants or attorneys to try to use the material to overturn convictions or challenge active prosecutions. “We will examine cases where these officers played a critical role in the conviction and, if appropriate, will seek to reopen convictions,” Bradley Bridge, a lawyer with the Defender Association of Philadelphia, said Monday.
District Attorney Larry Krasner told WHYY on Monday that his office also would review the database, and that some police as a result may be placed on his “Do Not Call list,” which city prosecutors created to flag police with potential credibility issues.
Reached by phone Monday, Ondarza declined to comment. Attempts to reach Lewis and Celce were unsuccessful.
Still, Celce apparently was aware of the database. On Saturday, he posted a link to an Inquirer story about it on his Facebook page and wrote: “As if I wasn’t already famous out here.. They can say whatever they want about me, I’m pretty sure I’m still gonna be the phenomenal cop that I’ve always been.. I’ve gotta send them a thank you letter.”
Palma, a sergeant, had the most flagged posts or comments, 43, according to the database. Ondarza had the fewest, three.
Many of Palma’s posts were links to news articles, sometimes without his commentary. Other cops sometimes posted comments beneath them.
In one posting cited by the Plain View Project, Palma wrote on New Year’s Eve 2011: “Happy new year to all. Now only if we can get rid of the ghetto I want everything for free ill drink my 40 and smoke my weed who shot pookie in da head. I’ll call the popo for my baby mama drama slobs of the world. This message is approved by me. Be safe. Peace out.”
The post was still visible on Palma’s Facebook page Monday. Attempts to reach him for comment were unsuccessful.
(Injustice Watch reported that the city since 2012 has paid nearly $1 million to settle five lawsuits filed against the city, Palma, or what it said were members of his squad.)
The Plain View Project was the brainchild of lawyer Emily Baker-White, who once worked in the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia. The project’s website included this disclaimer: “The posts and comments are open to various interpretations. We do not know what a poster meant when he or she typed them; we only know that when we saw them, they concerned us.”
In many cases, the Facebook activity it highlighted included officers commenting on each other’s posts.
In January 2018, for example, Celce posted a video of North Little Rock, Ark., police fatally shooting a 17-year-old suspect who had been detained at curbside. Despite social media speculation that the teen, Charles Smith Jr., was unarmed, an investigation ultimately found that he did pull a gun and that the three officers were justified in shooting him.
Atop the video, Celce appeared to post the comment: “Phenomenal job well done by the officers. God looked out for them because the Dindu Nuffin piece of s— had enough time to rack his gun twice and let off two shots Even though his family lied about what happened, my condolences go out to his family. At age 17, he chose his path in life.”
Ondarza was among the commenters, according to the database. He wrote: “They obviously planted a gun in that young mans hand,” punctuating the remark with four laughing emojis.