Some Philadelphia police officers placed on leave over social media posts, sources say

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Sources have confirmed to Action News that a number of Philadelphia police officers have been put on leave and had their service weapons taken as the result of an ongoing investigation into their social media posts.

The department is looking into racist and offensive comments that appeared on several officers' Facebook pages.

This comes as Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross released a statement Thursday saying an independent law firm will help the department investigate those posts.

Ross said the firm will help investigate each case individually before any disciplinary action is taken.

He said the city's law department is "instructing the law firm to conduct its review expeditiously and to review the most egregious posts first."

Ross said the department is "cognizant of the First Amendment implications." However, he said it appears some comments are not protected by the First Amendment.

"When a police officer's expression of his or her opinions erodes the Police Department's ability to do its job and maintain the public's trust, the department is permitted to act, including disciplining officers when the circumstances allow for it," he said.

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In addition, Ross said the department is taking several steps toward addressing the issue, including anti-racist and anti-bias training, training on social media and discrimination policies, and an internal auditing process to monitor social media posts by police personnel.

The department said earlier this week it was investigating the posts which were compiled in a database by the Plain View Project and published this weekend by Injustice Watch, a not-for-profit journalism organization.

Attorney Emily Baker-White reviewed public posts of more than 14,000 officers in eight cities, including Philadelphia, York, Pennsylvania, Dallas, St. Louis and Phoenix. According to Injustice Watch, of the more than 1,000 Philadelphia officers identified on Facebook by Baker-White, 328 of them posted troubling content.

Many of the comments called for violence against Muslims, protestors, immigrants, and those accused of crimes. Some posts celebrated police brutality and in a few cases called for violence against women.

Commissioner Ross' full statement is below:

"After consulting with the City's Law Department, we have asked an outside law firm to assist with investigating each of these cases individually before we make final decisions about disciplinary action. The Law Department is instructing the law firm to conduct its review expeditiously and to review the most egregious posts first.

First, we must verify independently that the officers identified in the report actually made the comments attributed to them, many of which I find deeply disturbing and upsetting. But to be clear, those officers that we have identified that appear to have engaged in explicit bias against any protected class of individual or who advocated any form of violence will be immediately removed from street duty during the course of these investigations.

Second, it is important to keep in mind that these comments, many of which appear to have been made off duty, are of varying levels of concern to the Police Department. We will be approaching this on a case-by-case basis.

We are certainly cognizant of the First Amendment implications here. But at the same time, it appears that certain comments were not constitutionally protected by the First Amendment. When a police officer's expression of his or her opinions erodes the Police Department's ability to do its job and maintain the public's trust, the department is permitted to act, including disciplining officers when the circumstances allow for it.

Police officers know they are held to a higher standard, and cannot engage in careless or outright reprehensible conduct, regardless whether they are on or off duty.

This is particularly the case in a diverse and welcoming City like ours where we must expect that when police officers interact with the public, investigate crimes, and make arrests, they are doing so without regard to an individual's race, religion, national origin, gender or sexual orientation. When this central ability to police our streets impartially is called into question, the Police Department is permitted to act and will act.

I must emphasize that those disturbing comments do not - in any way - reflect the values and beliefs of the thousands of honorable officers who make up this Department.

I hope you can appreciate that this is not an easy task. We will be deliberate in our steps and will ultimately do what is in the best interest of the City and its residents.

We recognize that this investigation is only one step towards addressing this unacceptable behavior and conduct. Therefore, we are implementing the following proactive measures:

Anti-Racist/Anti-Bias Training for all police personnel;

Additional roll call training on the social media, off-duty and race and discrimination policies; and

Employing, in the near future, an internal auditing process to monitor social media posts by police personnel"
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