This article was reported by Ken Armstrong for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization focused on the U.S. criminal justice system. You can sign up for their newsletter, or follow The Marshall Project on Facebook or Twitter.
Last week, Seattle police apologized for an incident in which a female officer arrested a 69-year-old man walking in the city with a golf club. She said he wielded the club as a weapon. He said it was simply a cane. Police video supported the man’s account.
But it was only after another discovery – made by a Seattle newspaper, The Stranger – that the police department removed the officer from street duty, assigning her to a desk.
The officer is white. The man she arrested with the golf club is black. Last year, the officer posted this on Facebook: “If you believe that blacks are NOT accusing white America for their problems then you are missing the point of the riots in Ferguson and the chronic black racism that far exceeds any white racism in this country. I am tired of black peoples paranoia that white people are out to get them. … I am tired of black people saying poor poor me …”
When Seattle’s police chief read those Facebook comments last week, she said she was “shocked and disappointed.”
Around the country, other chiefs can relate. So can other communities where officers – and sometimes, the police chiefs themselves – have posted Facebook messages that created controversy and sometimes led to suspensions or firings. Such episodes have played out on other social-media sites, of course. And, like the Internet itself, they extend beyond the United States. (In the United Kingdom, more than 150 officers have faced disciplinary action for bad Facebook behavior, including one constable who wrote: “Let’s not be so soft on these [worst expletive imaginable] out there.”)
But looking just at Facebook – and just at police in the United States – here’s a roundup of cases where officers have been accused of crossing a line when going online.
Marlin, Texas: A police sergeant was fired in August 2014 after posting this on Facebook: “The first day of the month! The day I absolutely LOVE going to the grocery store after putting in 120+ hours last month. I love being able to see how the useless lazy turd bags spend the hard earned money my working friends and I provided for them so they can sit of their lazy asses all month and drink the beer I am paying for. I especially love it in the summer so I can admire the thousands of dollars of ink they have adorning their unclean bodies as they smile at me with that mouth full of bling. Makes me want to help them take their groceries and help them load them into that escalade with $4000 rims. I promise, if I ever snap and go on a killing spree, it will be in a supermarket on the first.” (Elsewhere in Texas, police have created Facebook dustups in Dallas, Emory, and Matagorda County.)
Jonesboro, Ark.: The same month that police sergeant was fired in Texas, the police chief in Jonesboro, Ark., resigned. The chief, on Facebook, called a newspaper reporter a “pro-dope smoking, law license revoked, left wing liberal.” He also called her “smelly,” and wrote: “Dealing with ole Sunshine is like trying to pick up a dog turd by the ‘clean end.’” Jonesboro’s mayor handed the chief a 30-day suspension, but the chief quit before serving it. (And he wasn’t the only police chief to resign last August over a Facebook post. The chief in Chickasha, Okla., did, too. Before that, so did the police chief in Williamston, S.C.)
Bainbridge Island, Wash.: On this island in the Puget Sound, police in 2010 shot and killed a mentally ill man, in a case that prompted a civil rights lawsuit and a $1 million verdict against the city. A week after the shooting, the officer who opened fire received a Facebook message from a Los Angeles cop, who flippantly referred to the shooting as “combat qual.” The Bainbridge officer responded, on Facebook, with: “no sweat here ... bad guy should have listened a little better.” (A year later, a different Bainbridge officer was reprimanded for going on Facebook and writing of a crackdown on traffic offenses: “We rained terror on the island and no one was taken alive.”)
Portsmouth, Va.: In 2011, a police officer shot and killed an intoxicated, unarmed cook, a citizen of Kazakhstan who was struck 11 times. Afterward, the officer’s Facebook page – captured by The Virginian-Pilot before disappearing from the web – became the subject of an internal review. Among other postings, he described a photo of a box of handguns as his “box of VENGEANCE!” and wrote: “would be better if i was dirtying them instead of cleaning them!”
Boston, Mass.: Last year, a police officer for the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority posted on Facebook: “Farther's (sic) Day, the most confusing day in Roxbury.” The president of the Boston NAACP told television station WCVB, “It’s a sad commentary on what this gentleman thinks is going on in communities of color.” Afterward, the officer was stripped of his role as a police-academy drill instructor.
Indianapolis, Ind.: Television station WTHR aired an investigative report in 2009 about an Indiana state trooper’s Facebook posts. “I pick up trash for a living,” the trooper wrote. He boasted of drinking heavily and posted a photo in which a fellow police officer pointed a .357 Magnum at the trooper’s head. By matching Facebook’s timestamps with state patrol employment records, the station discovered that the trooper sometimes posted while on duty. The trooper subsequently resigned.
Albuquerque, N.M.: That trooper certainly wasn’t the only police officer to refer to people as garbage. In 2011, an Albuquerque police officer shot a man in the back after a traffic stop, killing him. Soon after, local media reported that the officer listed his job on Facebook as “human waste disposal.” No charges were filed against the officer for the shooting, but he did get a four-day suspension for his Facebook post.
New York City: In 2009, a New York City police officer described his Facebook status as “watching ‘Training Day’ to brush up on proper police procedure.” A few weeks later, that post was used to attack the officer’s credibility when a defendant he had arrested went to trial. (In “Training Day,” there is little, if anything, proper about the corrupt narcotics detective played by Denzel Washington.) Two years later, more than a dozen NYPD officers posted offensive comments about the West Indian Day Parade, leading to eventual discipline.
Monroe, La.: Responding to the protests in Ferguson, Mo., following the grand jury’s decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, a police officer in Monroe, La., went on Facebook and wrote: “Ive got an idea on how to clear the streets in Ferguson Missouri. Lets have a crop duster fly over and drop job applications.” The officer, who was subsequently placed on leave, also wrote: “Im surprised the beauty salon didn't have armed guards. That ‘good hair’ is expensive. Thats ghetto gold.” Police elsewhere also made Facebook posts about Ferguson that stirred controversy. That happened, among other places, in Elgin, Ill.; Glendale, Mo.; Portland, Ore.; Kansas City; and Seattle.
Volusia, Fla.: Before Michael Brown’s death, there was the controversy surrounding Trayvon Martin’s. In 2013, on the day George Zimmerman was acquitted in Martin’s death, a Volusia County Beach Safety officer posted on Facebook: “Another thug gone. Pull up your pants and be respectful. Bye bye thug r.i.p.” The following month, the officer was fired.