This weekend, BuzzFeed and The Inquirer reported the results of the Plain View Project that exposed Facebook posts made by over 300 Philadelphia police officers. The city of Philadelphia and its police department were once again reminded of their problem with racism, religious bigotry, and violence.
The posts ranged from overtly racist, like “blacks just seem not to listen to police they have violent tendencies like jungle animals,” to dog whistles: “just another lie front (sic) the mayor and DA. They are just trying for free (sic) the savages,” to religiously intolerant: “All I want from the government is to defend this country against Islam.” These statements can only be viewed as a manifestation of prejudice the police department has allowed to fester. As a city, we can no longer entertain a conversation about good apples and bad apples, or isolated incidents. Human nature and history have taught us these issues are far more complex, as we at the Police Advisory Commission have outlined in the past. The residents of the city, and most importantly police department leadership, must work together to say enough is enough. We must understand and undo racism and strive to proactively address this issue, which starts with the police department.
This task is both difficult and overdue. It cannot be accomplished with one act, and because racism is a societal issue, it will never fully be undone by a single city agency. Despite these potential pitfalls, these efforts must begin.
Efforts should start with the Fraternal Order of Police and its president, John McNesby, advocating for the leaders of the police department to take decisive action in removing the offending officers from public interaction. McNesby has stated “the overwhelming majority” of officers “act with integrity and professionalism.” The Police Advisory Commission agrees. We therefore hope McNesby will exercise his duty to the majority of the department by supporting leadership in removing those unfit for command and showing the world where good cops stand on this issue.
Another important step is for PPD leadership to accept and publicly acknowledge a problem exists. Moreover, they must maintain a standard for leadership inside the police department. As the department begins to change its culture, supervisors who have made problematic posts should be relieved of command roles.
A Muslim resident of this city should not be asked to interact with a captain who claims Islam is an inherently violent religion. Nor should any officers and residents be supervised by this same captain championing easy arrests of people as being "like shooting fish in a barrel.” A protester should not be forced to adhere to decisions made by another captain who openly mocks Black Lives Matter by posting a meme which states, “Instead of hands up don’t shoot … pull you pants up don’t loot.” And a refugee seeking asylum in Philadelphia should not be forced to come into contact with a captain who apparently speculates that Syrian refugees are frauds.
The police department is well aware of the need for the public to view them as legitimate and worthy of the power citizens entrust to them. These posts delegitimize the police officers who are sworn to protect Philadelphians on a daily basis. But the department is especially delegitimized when leadership is infested by racism and poor conduct.
The Police Advisory Commission is particularly concerned about the role of captains and supervisors because of their power and influence. If one officer holds incredible responsibility, then those who command dozens or hundreds of officers wield exponentially more responsibility, and deserve to be held to the highest standards. In this regard, many of these leaders have betrayed the trust of both their subordinates and the residents of Philadelphia. That is not acceptable.
Supervisors should also feel the betrayal of the trust they placed in these officers who have posted so inappropriately, and must now act to remedy this before they are subsumed into this betrayal. This action should include appropriate discipline focused on what is fair to the residents of this city. It must also include dedicating time, energy, and resources to address the larger culture manifested in these Facebook posts.