Philly Police counterterrorism unit interrogated journalist over Facebook comment
Ernest Owens, the LGBTQ editor at Philadelphia magazine, had no idea that a social media comment about racial tensions in Philadelphia's gayborhood would get him a call from the city Police Department's counterterrorism unit.
Ernest Owens, the LGBTQ editor at Philadelphia Magazine, tends to be provocative when writing about racism and homophobia. But he had no idea that a social media comment about racial tensions in Philadelphia's Gayborhood would get him a call from the Police Department's counterterrorism unit.
That's what happened last December, after someone complained to the police about what he wrote on Facebook. "I was just shocked," Owens, 27, said two weeks ago. Being questioned by detectives in an interrogation room in South Philadelphia left him shaken, he said, and factored into his decision not to cover the January 2018 Mummers Parade, as he had in the past.
Owens said he believes he was guilty of nothing more than posting while black. He said the Police Department had overreacted to an emailed complaint from a white man whom he described as a prominent member of the Mummers, a group he has bashed in print over practices he perceives as racist. And he has been overwrought since learning in June that the department exonerated itself after an Internal Affairs investigation of his allegation that his civil rights were violated.
It all started Dec. 14, when local DJ and gay activist Matt Beierschmitt took to Facebook to chastise gays for patronizing a nightclub named ICandy at 254 S. 12th St. Its owner had made headlines in 2016 when he was recorded making disparaging remarks about black people. Owens responded, echoing his sentiments and blasting both ICandy and the Mummers.
"I say … they will be shown better than told," Owens wrote. "I will just leave it at that. A great reckoning is coming."
Four days later, Owens said, he got a phone call from Detective Lawrence Richardson Jr. of the Police Department's Dignitary Protection and Counter Terrorism Operations unit, informing him that he was being investigated because of his Facebook comment.
"I said, 'What?'" he recalled. "I'm thinking: 'They're calling me about something on Facebook?' Police shouldn't be engaging me over a Facebook post."
Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath, who had hired Owens, agreed. He wrote in a letter to Police Commissioner Richard Ross that Owens' treatment was "nothing short of outrageous."
"Any interpretation of his post as implying physical violence — let alone containing a criminal threat — is ridiculous on its face," McGrath wrote. "What's more, summoning a journalist to explain himself and his opinions … can only be viewed as an attempt to squash his constitutionally protected right to free speech."
Owens said that, in June, he found out the results of the Internal Affairs probe into his complaint over being investigated, and then wrestled with whether, how and when to make this public.
Police Department spokesperson Capt. Sekou Kinebrew declined to comment on Owens' and McGrath's contention that the department had overreacted.
Despite his protestations that he's a journalist who was just speaking figuratively in his post, Owens said, Richardson insisted that they meet in person. Owens said he reluctantly agreed to meet Richardson the next day at the unit's headquarters at 2800 S. 20th St.
During the interrogation, Owens said, he noticed paperwork listing the name of the man who had complained about his Facebook comment.
That man, James DePre, a saxophone player and leader of the Quaker City String Band, said Wednesday that he emailed Owens' comment to the police after someone sent it to him and after he'd attended a parade-safety planning meeting of officers from the Third and Fourth Districts and community members, including Mummers.
"At that meeting, the police said, 'If you see something, say something.' I don't even know who he is," DePre said of Owens. "'A day of reckoning is coming,'" that was the thing I reacted to. That's what prompted me to send it to the police. If you have a public event and you get a message like that, that stood out to me. So I said, 'Here it is, you can do whatever you want with it.'"
Owens and DePre both say they have never met. DePre's son Jimmy is a DJ in the city's LGBTQ community.
Owens said Richardson told him it was protocol for the police to look into any complaint, and that his Facebook comment was flagged as a possible threat. His Miranda rights were read, and he was asked a series of jarring questions: Do you plan to harm any Mummers or anyone from ICandy? Do you own a gun? Do you know how to make a bomb? Did you have military training?
Owens said he answered no to each question and explained to his interrogators that his flagged comments "were rooted in coverage I had done in the community dealing with black and brown people and the LGBTQ community, who are discriminated against."
Before leaving, Owens said, a sergeant told him that he had been cleared and that he had been interviewed due to the standard protocol known as "see something, say something."
When asked to explain what would trigger a police investigation based on a social media comment, Kinebrew responded by email that an investigation "is initiated when the Police Department receives a report of a crime or criminal activity."
Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the Pennsylvania ACLU, said the fact that the police investigated a single complaint against a journalist should not raise red flags. "If we started seeing a pattern of the police calling in reporters, particularly if they were focusing in on one reporter or certain kinds of reporters, then we would have concerns about it," she said.
But Owens, who has a degree in communications from the University of Pennsylvania, said he believes the Police Department was complicit with DePre in chilling his free-speech rights. He disagrees with the conclusion of the Internal Affairs investigation, and believes the department allowed itself to be manipulated by a white complainant against a law-abiding black person, as in the high-profile Starbucks incident in April near Rittenhouse Square.
"I think that the police definitely have to recognize their force in this situation and their power," he said. "They did not use the right level of discretion in this situation. Just because you have the authority and the power doesn't mean you have to abuse it."