Over the past several weeks, a number of police departments have found themselves in hot water over hateful or racist remarks allegedly made by their officers.
But the comments weren’t caught on camera or overheard by bystanders. Instead, the officers posted them on their own public Facebook pages.
And now anyone can view these comments, thanks to the Plain View Project, a sort of watchdog group that says it has compiled thousands of these comments from thousands of purported police officers’ Facebook pages.
Here’s a primer on the project and its founder:
How it began
The Plain View Project was founded by Emily Baker-White, an attorney and graduate of Harvard Law School. She told CNN the idea came from something she saw during her fellowship at the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia.
In an interview earlier this month, Baker-White said she was investigating a police brutality claim when she came across public Facebook posts by several police officers.
“One stirred me,” she said. “It was a meme of a police dog trying to run after something, its teeth were bared, it was being restrained and the text over the picture was, ‘I hope you run, he likes fast food.'”
That made her wonder how common that sort of thing was, and whether there was a “culture” of police officers sharing offensive memes or content online.
“So I created the Plain View Project to answer the question of how widespread this behavior is by police officers online,” she told CNN.
How it works
To get started, the Plain View Project used publicly available rosters of police officers in eight jurisdictions across the United States, according to its website, and began searching for those officers on Facebook.
Baker-White said there were just two people on staff — herself and a paralegal. The project contracted with others, like a web designer and researchers, to comb through the bulk of posts they found.
They looked for corroborating information that would confirm a Facebook page did, in fact, belong to a police officer on their list, Baker-White said, such as matching the profile’s name and location and seeing if the owner had posted about policing.
“We had to go through each profile,” Baker-White said, “to find that affirmative confirmation, saying, ‘I am a police officer,’ before we felt we could include it.”
‘It’s a good day for a choke hold’
The Plain View Project claims to have discovered more than 5,000 concerning posts and comments from more than 3,500 police officers.
CNN has not independently confirmed that the posts are from police officers.
The posts were published alongside metadata that uses publicly available information to share the officer’s badge number, their title, salary and status as a police officer.
Many of the posts in the database show the purported officers sharing memes or jokes they seemed to believe were funny, while others espouse outright racist views or use offensive language.
“Its a good day for a choke hold,” reads one post by a Phoenix officer in 2011.
Posts that appear to be made by officers from Dallas, Phoenix and Philadelphia all shared a similar meme showing a Confederate flag above a picture of two black men with sagging pants. “This does not offend me,” one reads, referring to the Confederate flag before remarking, “This bulls**t does!”
A July 2016 post purportedly made by a Philadelphia officer bemoans “a civil war vs the cops + islamo s**tbirds wanting to wipe us out.”
And an October 2015 post appears to show a St. Louis officer commenting “Funny as heck!” on an article called, “If you wipe your butt with your bare hand but consider bacon to be unclean, you may be a Muslim.”
At least 4 departments are investigating
The Plain View Project says it’s not concerned with whether or not the posts are constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.
“Rather, we believe that because fairness, equal treatment, and integrity are essential to the legitimacy of policing, these posts and comments should be part of a national dialogue about police,” it says.
At least four police departments — those in Dallas, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Lake County, Florida — have confirmed they are investigating as a result of the Plain View Project.
In Philadelphia, 72 police officers have been placed on administrative duty pending an internal investigation, the department has said. An independent law firm is involved, and the department will review its social media polices.
Another investigation is ongoing in St. Louis, and 22 officers have been banned from bringing their cases to the prosecutor’s office as a result of posts found in the Plain View Project.
“We will support and represent those officers during this overly-broad social-media investigation,” John McNesby, president of the Philadelphia Fraternal Order of Police Lodge #5, said in a statement Wednesday.
“Also, it’s important for the public to understand that the vast majority of our officers serve the residents of Philadelphia with integrity and professionalism.”
Dallas police are also investigating, and a spokesman said the department takes the matter seriously and ensured “we will not tolerate racism, bigotry or hatred of any kind in our organization.”
The Lake County Sheriff’s Office in Florida has also opened an inquiry into posts by 16 active duty officers. No sheriff’s office employees were currently suspended, fire or placed on administrative leave. A spokesman said many of the posts came from former or retired employees.