It’s a celebratory Sunday in Philadelphia. Thousands will be hitting the streets for Philly’s largest-ever Pride Parade. And size isn’t the only way today’s event will make history. Meanwhile, there will also be plenty of music, dancing, food, and more at the Odunde Festival, America’s largest African-American street festival. This week, we chat with Inquirer reporter Chris Palmer who shared insight into a massive story that will continue to send ripples through the Philadelphia Police Department.
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Each week we go behind the scenes with one of our reporters or editors to discuss their work and the challenges they face along the way. This week we chat with Chris Palmer, who’s been following the ongoing fallout stemming from a database made public that alleged about 330 Philadelphia cops had posted racist or otherwise offensive comments on Facebook.
You don’t often see so many reporters’ names on one byline unless it’s an investigative piece or a series. Can you walk us through how you tackled this with other reporters after the database went public?
Stacey Burling, a medical reporter for us, was working a previously-scheduled weekend shift when news broke Saturday morning of the database’s publication. She did a great job getting an initial version of our story about it online.
I then called the police commissioner. I was out and in the middle of some weekend errands, but I keep spare notebooks and pens in my car, so I grabbed them, did the interview while sitting on a sidewalk, and called in notes from the conversation to Stacey to put into the story.
By early afternoon, Julie Shaw and I, who both cover the Police Department, had come into the office to help make the story as comprehensive as we could. And data reporter Nat Lash, who was scheduled to work a night shift that night, came in early to help us sort and digest the large database. Given the amount of work and time the Plain View Project had put into their database, it helped to have several of us working together as we did our own reporting on the issue.
What do we know about the group Plain View Project, and how did you vet the veracity of their published work?
Stacey on Saturday called the main organizer behind the project, Emily Baker-White, a defense lawyer who previously worked in Philadelphia, and asked questions about the project, how it originated, and the methodology. Her background as a health and science reporter was really useful in being able to parse a study and how it was constructed.
In the days and hours afterward, Julie and I looked through the posts and used our own reporting to try and confirm whatever pieces of the database we could. There were a variety of tactics we used: Searching for the Facebook profiles included in the database to see if we could find them and/or the posts in question; running an officer’s name through city payroll records to see if they were, in fact, on the force; trying to reach those officers, through Facebook messages, or calls, or emails; searching Nexis (an online database and research service), Google, and our archives for information about the officers; asking the Police Department about certain officers or posts to see if they were aware or would verify; reaching out to the police union to see if they’d comment; looking through other databases for officers and/or clues about them, such as court records, arrest records, and other databases we have internally.
Nat was also able to pull a lot of the underlying data from the Plain View Project’s website into a spreadsheet that we could then use to quickly filter and study the officers and some data about their postings in a variety of new ways that helped our reporting.
What should we expect in terms of fallout and public response to this?
That’s part of the ongoing story, I think. DA Larry Krasner – who spent decades as a defense attorney filing police misconduct lawsuits – has already said that his office will take the database seriously, alerting defense attorneys in some cases about the officers’ postings, and possibly preventing certain cops from testifying in court. Other defense lawyers have already said they are going to look at the database to see if any of the postings raise enough questions about an officer’s credibility to merit throwing out old convictions. The Police Department has said Internal Affairs is investigating every post in the database, and said Thursday that 10 officers have already been placed on desk duty. It’s not clear at this point how many officers might ultimately be disciplined, or what form that discipline might take, though Commissioner Ross has said suspensions are more likely than firings.
I think the other big question, though – and one that’s pretty difficult to measure – is, how does this impact the department’s credibility? Ross, who has not been shy about criticizing the posts, acknowledged that even one officer’s actions can impact how members of the public view all 6,500 people on the force. And Friday, more than 150 people gathered outside Police Headquarters to call for those named on the database to be pulled from street duty.We saw similar evidence of that last year, when the arrests of two black men at Starbucks led to protests and international outcry against Philly police. In 2016, the department came under heavy criticism after a picture surfaced online of a white officer who had a tattoo on his arm resembling a Nazi eagle – an episode Krasner brought up Thursday when discussing the Facebook posts on WHYY.
Ross speaks frequently about how much the Police Department has done in recent years to make itself a better agency, and cops often lament that much of their good work tends to get overshadowed or ignored. It will be interesting to monitor all of the fallout as this story moves forward – both the tangible and intangible effects.
Soccer fans have an opportunity to enjoy the World Cup surrounded by good company at Ridgway Park. The U.S. takes on Thailand Tuesday, so swing by to check it out. Thanks for the heads up @ridgwayparkfriends!
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