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Philadelphia Police Department takes 72 officers off street amid probe into controversial Facebook posts

Police Commissioner Richard Ross said at a news conference that the officers have been placed on administrative duty as the investigation continues.

Police Commissioner Richard Ross holds a press conference at the Police Administration Building on June 17, 2019.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross holds a press conference at the Police Administration Building on June 17, 2019.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The Philadelphia Police Department has taken 72 officers off street duty as it continues to investigate scores of racist or offensive Facebook posts allegedly made by city cops — the largest number of officers placed on desk duty at one time in recent history, Commissioner Richard Ross said Wednesday.

During a news conference at Police Headquarters nearly three weeks after advocates published a database cataloging the posts, Ross said that although no officers had yet been disciplined, he expected dozens to face internal consequences and at least several to be fired. He did not identify any by name.

“We are equally disgusted by many of the posts that you saw, and that in many cases the rest of the nation saw,” Ross said. He later said the alleged behavior “defies logic” and “makes me sick,” adding: “We are in a position to know better.”

Ross’ remarks updated a scandal that has enveloped his department, with 330 of its 6,500 officers included on a database known as the Plain View Project. Organizers of the database said they had cataloged thousands of dehumanizing or intolerant posts or comments made by cops in eight jurisdictions, including Philadelphia.

The commissioner’s comments also came during a week in which he and other top city officials have been responding to an unusually violent Father’s Day weekend in the city, in which 28 people were shot — five fatally — in 19 incidents Saturday and Sunday.

Ross said Wednesday that he did not believe the benching of 72 officers would significantly impact staffing as the department seeks to respond to, and try to prevent, gun violence this summer. The cops placed on desk duty, Ross said, were spread across the department in a way that did not leave any division shorthanded. The officers will continue to be paid.

Ross acknowledged that he would have preferred to have more officers on patrol.

“Of all the things we have to contend with in this police department, of all the issues that we have to deal with, this is one we certainly could have done without,” Ross said.

Ross said the investigation into the roughly 3,100 posts linked to Philadelphia cops was being conducted by the department’s Internal Affairs division and by the law firm Ballard Spahr. The probe would be conducted in stages, he said, with some officers disciplined as investigators continued to examine other, possibly less offensive, examples.

“We are trying to deal with some of the worst postings first,” Ross said, adding that those would include posts that appeared to be racist, intolerant, or condoning violence.

He did not specify how long the investigation might take, but said the law firm would evaluate each post to determine whether it is constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment. “If the speech is protected, no further action will be taken,” he said. “If the speech is not protected by the First Amendment, there will be discipline."

The department’s social media policy says in part that employees “are prohibited from using ethnic slurs, profanity, personal insults; material that is harassing, defamatory, fraudulent, or discriminatory.”

The commissioner said he planned to announce initial disciplinary results in several weeks, and reiterated that the department would implement anti-bias training and would provide reminders at roll calls about appropriate social media behavior.

City officials including Ross, District Attorney Larry Krasner, and Mayor Jim Kenney have previously denounced the posts. Krasner also said that his office would examine whether any officers should be placed on an internal list of cops with perceived credibility problems.

In a statement Wednesday night, City Council Members Curtis Jones, Kenyatta Johnson, and Helen Gym said the removal of 72 officers from street duty was “the first of many steps that must be taken” in response to the scandal, but added, “We remain deeply concerned that this will not be enough to restore public trust and provide the healing that our communities deserve.”

They called for additional but unspecified disciplinary measures, and said a Council committee would be hosting an emergency public meeting next Wednesday to "build a collective vision for public safety and meaningful accountability.”

John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, said in a statement that it was “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 that “the vast majority of our officers serve the residents of Philadelphia with integrity and professionalism,” and added: "Far too many officers have been taken off the street during a time of increased violence in our city.”

About 150 protesters on June 7 gathered outside Police Headquarters and called for all officers in the database to be benched, if not fired, saying they believed that the posts were indicative of a departmental culture that tolerated bias or bigotry.

Ross on Wednesday said he understands how the postings could “tarnish, or did tarnish, our reputation,” even though he said he does not believe the postings represent the majority of the officers on the force.

While encouraging city residents not to judge the entire police force due to the actions of a few, he acknowledged the scandal could leave scars.

“How does it impact our ability to police?” Ross said. “That is a major issue.”