HARTFORD, Conn. — When Philadelphia abruptly pulled 72 police officers from patrol last June, it wasn’t over charges of corruption or brutality.
Instead, they were in trouble over posts they’d made on social media while off duty.
All 72 were accused of putting racist, homophobic or violent comments on their personal Facebook pages. In the past year alone, scores of other officers around the country have been disciplined for similar behavior.
One wrote, “death to Islam.” Another: “It’s a great day for a choke hold.” A third appeared to suggest a Democratic congresswoman should be shot.
In Connecticut, that pattern has led some police commanders to tighten up rules about social media, or to at least remind officers to be cautious.
“Remember that what you post and have posted can come back to haunt you,” Torrington Chief William Baldwin advised his officers in a memo in late May.
Emphasizing that police and other public workers have free speech rights, Baldwin still cautioned: “Be aware that we are police officers just as much off duty as on duty … we are more strictly scrutinized for everything.”
After a flurry of complaints in the past year, Hartford Interim Police Chief James Thody sent out a memo last month advising officers to review rules on social media.
“Public trust, faith and legitimacy are essential requirements to be an effective police officer,” Thody wrote. “We are all representatives of this agency, on-duty or off.”
Hartford police are investigating an accusation that Officer Jay Szepanski shared a photo of a Frog Hollow intersection in September, writing: “Every (expletive) parasite in the city passes through this (expletive) intersection at least once a day! It’s 10AM and it’s been half a dozen hookers, several dozen junkies, lost suburbanites looking for Heroin and 3 LIME bikes Someone do me a solid and call in an air strike!”
Many private citizens can post offensive, vitriolic or outright hateful thoughts with little or no blowback, but police — much like judges, mayors, civic leaders and others — can face consequences. That applies even when they’re off the clock.
“The more a person’s job involves interacting with the public and/or making policy, the more important it becomes for the employer to be able to be sure they can be impartial and treat everyone fairly,” said Dan Barrett, legal director of the ACLU of Connecticut.
“We don’t want someone in the public to think the town clerk will refuse to serve them because they’re Republican.
“With police, they have an obligation to protect everyone. They’re expected to interview witnesses to crimes, people who complain about domestic violence — they’re expected to treat them all fairly.”
A police officer expressing dislike for a specific ethnic or religious group should be “a blinking red light” to supervisors, Barrett said.
DAMAGING PUBLIC TRUST
Bigoted comments online that are traced back to a single officer damage public trust in the entire agency, commanders warn. And the officer risks suspension or worse.
“An officer that expresses a particular disdain for any group of people cannot be considered impartial by the public or the courts,” Thody said in his memo to Hartford police.
“These comments can be used to impeach an officer’s testimony in court, create distrust in all future actions of the officer, and permanently alter or even end an officer’s career.”
That doesn’t automatically happen, of course.
In Naugatuck, for instance, then-Lt. Bryan Cammarata was hit with a five-day suspension in March for posting YouTube videos in which he demeaned immigrants. Chief Steven Hunt concluded they were insensitive and offensive to members of the community, and transferred Cammarata out of his post as public information officer. Even so, Cammarata qualified for promotion soon afterward; he is now a captain in charge of the patrol division and is the department’s third in command.
Police agencies receive most social media complaints from community leaders or ordinary citizens. That was apparently the case with Officer Charlie Rispoli of the Gretna, La., police, who described left-wing Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a “vile idiot” and added she “needs a round, and I don’t mean the kind she used to serve.” He was fired this summer.
Sometimes, complaints even come from other police; two Hartford lieutenants this year accused each other of violating social media policy, leading to departmental investigations.
SYSTEMATIC, NATIONWIDE SCRUTINY
But this spring was the first time America’s police felt the weight of systematic, nationwide scrutiny.
The Plain View Project, a collaboration of attorneys in Philadelphia, searched thousands of individual Facebook accounts of officers and retired officers in four major cities and four towns. In the spring, it went public with a database of 5,000 Facebook posts and comments that it found objectionable.
Although some were recent, most were several years old or older. Nevertheless, the revelation was a bombshell in the police field.
“Bucket list: Punch a guy so hard he poops himself,” one York, Pa., officer wrote in 2014.
Numerous comments denigrated Muslims, Black Lives Matter, immigrants, liberals, Democrats, former President Barack Obama or the news media.
Some officers simply posted provocative memes such as a Confederate flag or the phrase “When does White History Month start?”
In other cases, the messages were far more direct: One Philadelphia officer posted a mock-up of an “antifa hunting permit” with the words “open season, all 58 gender identities.”
A Phoenix officer shared a right-wing group’s “Islam is a hate group, not a religion” meme. A Dallas officer described a criminal suspect as “just another savage that needs to be exterminated.”
One Philadelphia officer posted his own version of Miranda warnings, starting with “You have the right to shut the (expletive) up, anything you say will cause me to (expletive) throat punch you …”
Another Philadelphia officer asked, “How long until a law abiding, gun permit carrying Trump supporter decides his life is in danger and blow away one of these domestic terrorist Democrats?”
Philadelphia immediately transferred 72 officers and detectives to administrative duties, where they wouldn’t interact with the public. Five quit, seven await termination hearings and most of the rest face reprimands or suspensions.
Prosecutors in St. Louis declared that 22 officers in the database are barred from bringing criminal cases or even seeking search warrants.
In the past decade, many Connecticut police departments have created policies specifically forbidding off-duty social media comments with bigotry or threats.
Cheshire, Meriden, Windsor and Windsor Locks are among the communities warning against comments “that ridicule, malign, disparage, bully or otherwise express bias against any race, religion or protected class of individuals.”
Many towns strictly ban police from identifying themselves on their personal social media accounts as members of the department.
Waterford’s policy, updated in 2018, permits it, but adds a caution: “The WPD reminds officers that, in the current public climate where misconduct by police officers, or actions perceived by the public as misconduct, predominate media coverage of police work, divulging limited information regarding affiliation with the WPD may, unfortunately, be prudent.”
Some police departments such as Watertown and Willimantic do not have specific rules on social media, and others, including East Hartford and Hamden, rely on policies that govern all municipal workers from librarians to building inspectors.
At the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, Professor Maria Haberfeld predicts all police departments will ultimately need specific social media rules.
“It’s something relatively new, so some police departments are just catching up,” said Haberfeld, who chairs the school’s police science department.
Haberfeld’s students, who are all New York City police officers, mostly support clear social media guidelines, and many avoid Facebook entirely.
“The police you hear about with this, they are outliers. It’s not that a significant percentage of 800,000 police are posting hateful messages or feel it’s their right to post these things,” she said. “Many of my students just stay away from Facebook — they don’t want problems from inside the department or outside.”
Police unions say they understand the need for guidelines, but communities should remember that officers don’t simply surrender their First Amendment rights when their take the job, said Larry Dorman, spokesman for AFSCME Council 4. His union represents 2,000 officers in 40 Connecticut departments.
“The social media world is increasingly wild and unruly,” Dorman said. “The burden is ultimately on the employer to work collaboratively with the union to establish sensible social media guidelines. We need sensible, rational policies.”