“The 6th is a great place if you want to pinch. We don’t get many shootings except N of Spring Garden, but there r constant robberies and legitimate complainants by parasites that stick out like a sore thumb. It’s like shooting fish in a barrel.”
This is just one example of the thousands of offensive Facebook posts and comments by police officers in Philadelphia and seven other cities unearthed on Saturday by the Plain View Project. The database identifies a total of 505 officers from Philadelphia -- 330 active duty and the rest retired. Among them are an inspector, six captains, and eight lieutenants. The officer who wrote the post about the 6th District is currently the captain of the court evidence unit.
We give police enormous powers – to arrest, search, and use deadly force – to protect citizens. In exchange, we must be able to trust our police. Trust is key to their ability to respond and investigate crime.
That’s why the existence of these posts represents a crisis in this city and elsewhere.
If you were a Muslim person in distress, how do you call 911 and open your door to an officer who posted “Death to Islam” -- as another police posting did. If you were a black parent, would you be afraid for your teenager’s life knowing that the captain who oversees your police district views him as a “parasite” and arresting him would be as easy as “shooting fish in a barrel”?
It’s not just the bias and hostility in these posts that is cause for concern. It’s how that hostility extends beyond the internet and into policing itself. Buzzfeed News, which first reported on the database, found that 139 of the 505 PPD officers who posted offensive messages were sued at least once for a civil rights violation. One hundred of those lawsuits ended with a settlement or verdict against them.
And at least one researcher found this could extend to use of lethal force. Greg Ridgeway, a professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, found that New York City Police Department officers who had rapidly accumulated negative marks -- such as losing their badge, getting into a car accident, or being investigated by internal affairs -- in their disciplinary records were three times more likely to fire their weapons than their more well-behaved peers.
Police Commissioner Richard Ross told The Inquirer’s editorial board that while he shares the public’s outrage, he will wait for the internal affairs investigation before making any decisions.
Ross must figure out how the Philadelphia Police Department changes its culture to become a place where people who hold these offensive views are not a part of the force. Given the long and troubled history of the department that includes corruption, brutality, and racism, this change is long overdue.
The PPD should view the Plain View database as a gift -- an outsider helping the organization do the in-house cleaning that it should have done internally. But at the end of the day, this is a police problem --- and it’s up to the police to fix.