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Nationwide Scrutiny of Police Officer Social Media Posts Raises Concerns for Pennsylvania Municipal Employers

Published in the August, 2019 issue of the PELRAS newsletter

Published on: Tue 27th Aug, 2019 By: Brad J. Betack

Municipal police departments are facing intense scrutiny after a nationwide database was compiled, collecting thousands of violent and offensive social media posts by police officers, raising questions of credibility and bias of the officers and potential liability concerns for their municipal employers.

The database was created by a group of attorneys who discovered, in 2016, numerous postings on Facebook from several Philadelphia police officers, which supported and endorsed violence, racism and bigotry. As a result, the group created the database, known as the Plain View Project, for the intended purpose of identifying social media postings by current and formers police officers which could “erode civilian trust and confidence in police”, with the intended goal of having such related police departments “investigate and address” such postings.

The Project obtained published rosters of eight police departments around the country, including two Pennsylvania police departments (Philadelphia and York City).

Based upon a review of the eight police department rosters, the Project identified over 5,000 social media posts including racist, misogynist and Islamophobic memes (“death to Islam”) and comments, as well as celebrations of officers who use excessive force, including messages like “It’s a good day for a chokehold.”

Upon release of the database, media attention and criticism was swift and the eight involved police departments faced intense scrutiny to address the social media postings by their officers. As a result of the release of the postings, the Philadelphia Police Department placed seventy-two officers on administrative leave, pending a full investigation from an outside law firm. Upon conclusion of the Philadelphia Police Department’s investigation, thirteen officers were terminated as a result of their social media activity. In addition, the Philadelphia Police Department has begun anti-bias and anti-racism training, and officers’ social media accounts will be periodically audited in an effort to ensure that officers are complying with the department’s social media policy.

However, the scrutiny resulting from the Plain View Project has not been limited to only the eight departments whose officers’ social media activity was reviewed in the project. Media organizations all around the country, including several in the Commonwealth, are engaging in a review of social media activity of police officers employed in their specific communities. Once social media profiles are reviewed, if any questionable postings are found, these news organizations are contacting police departments employing such officers, seeking comment. In most circumstances, the Departments were unaware of the officers’ social media activity prior to being alerted by the media, and in some circumstances, have no applicable policy setting forth guidelines on an officer’s social media activity.

It is unlikely that such increased scrutiny of police officer and other public employee social media activity will lessen anytime soon, and municipal employers must be prepared, through implementation of social media policies and initiation of employee investigations, to respond when concerns are raised to determine if the employee has engaged in any improper conduct.

Municipal employers should work with labor counsel to draft social media policies, setting forth clear guidelines for their employees on what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate social medial activities. While public employees have First Amendment protections to post on social media sites, and on other venues, as private citizens on matters of public concern, social media policies should make clear that speech that undermines the public trust and confidence required of them as public employees, is prohibited, as well as speech that violates the municipality’s policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment. For example, racist or sexist social media comments tend to undermine the public trust and confidence required of public employees, and may violate municipal policies on discrimination and harassment even if made while off duty, and should be prohibited.

In addition to reviewing and updating policies, municipal employers should provide training to all employees on this issue of social media and must be prepared to initiate investigations when confronted with problematic social media activity, in order to determine whether such activity violates existing policies and warrants discipline.