A few weeks back in June 2019, the US got some startling news. The Plain View Project, published a database of police officers throughout the country of officers using offensive language, anti-Muslim rhetoric and suggesting that they were in favor of extrajudicial means of violence toward suspects. That these officers created, posted, re-posted or “liked” the memes is certainly problematic. Of course, none of this is acceptable. In fact, in response to the media backlash, many police departments have instituted internal affairs investigations into the off duty and sometimes on-duty conduct of these officers.
For those who have spent the last few weeks under a rock, the Plain View Project took a look at the Facebook posts of current and former police officers throughout the country. Their list was not an exhaustive one, just a random selection of different officers from 8 different police departments throughout the country.
One of the departments that were the subject of their investigation was Phoenix, AZ. That department has, unfortunately, remained in the spotlight due to this debacle and the viral video of how officers handled taking an adult couple into custody with their children.
Let me take a moment to brag about my former agency, the Waterbury Police Department. We took a proactive role in ensuring that our officers actually followed the social media policy and vision of the Waterbury Police Department, whether on or off duty. I truly believe the real problem is not solely that the officers engaged in this reprehensible conduct, but that it took the news media to publish this information to bring attention to this matter. Let me be clear, I do not believe that big brother should be monitoring out Facebook or any social media posts. However, an administration should be aware of what its employees are doing. In a similar manner, employees must understand that whether on or off duty, they reflect their department. The reasons why these departments were unaware of the activities of their employees should be at the conclusion of all of their internal affairs investigations. The development of some type of remedy to monitor employee action is essential going forward for every department across the country.
However, I do not wish to spend any more time on this topic. What is often forgotten in this time of social media and YouTube blitz is that news outlet, USA Today, also published a list of officers who have been investigated for some type of misconduct. So I’m wondering how did I miss this? They poured through the records of numerous agencies across the country and found more than 85,000 officers who have been charged with a number of offenses, sometimes numerous charges and different times for each individual officer.
Let me be fair in my analysis, just because someone is investigated for alleged misconduct does not mean that they were found guilty or that the complaint was sustained against them. I do believe that there is an unfairness in automatically assessing guilt to officers. This unfairness will creep into the minds of any member of the public who searches for an officer who has been charged, yet found to have not committed an offense or infraction of departmental rules. Fairness and procedural justice must follow officers the same way they should follow the general public.
Police have had a perception problem for quite some time now. The instances are not getting better with the advent and proliferation of social media and modern technology. From USA Today to Plain View Project to random video across the internet, officers must understand that they are in the public eye like never before. Not only are actions recorded by citizens’ cell phone, body-worn cameras, but even their social media records may come into play.
The answer is not what I read on a certain police forum, that officers should quit social media. The answer is to stop behaving and believing a certain way. Quitting social media because you are afraid of the backlash over your conduct defeats the point. One should strive to think differently and be more accepting of others. Yea, I know and unicorns defecate sweet smelling apple pies. But we should least try to make the society we want to live in. And the police play a large part of that society.