When Facebook Indiscretions Reveal Ugly Truths


Last September, people identifying themselves as New York Police Department (NYPD) officers used a public Facebook page to vent their frustrations over patrolling the annual West Indian American Day Parade in Brooklyn. The commenters, fully named in accordance with Facebook policy, complained about the violence that has sometimes erupted at the parade, which winds through West Indian and African-American neighborhoods each Labor Day.

The page has since been deleted, but it was disclosed in a Dec. 5 article in The New York Times. The quotes published by the Times from the September conversation called parade participants “savages” and “animals.”

One commenter said, “Let them kill each other.”

NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly waited two days to make his first public comment about the exchange, which ran for 70 pages and at one point had up to 1,200 followers. He said any disrespect of officers toward civilians they are duty-bound to protect is “unacceptable” and warrants disciplinary action.

NYPD Internal Affairs is investigating.

Verifying identities can be a challenge in the online world—even on Facebook—but The Times matched the names of more than half the 150 commenters with names of NYPD officers.

It's too bad these officers missed out on a conference earlier this year at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which brought together 40 New Jersey journalists and police officers, including senior police officials, to discuss how social media has reshaped the way policing is done in communities.

At the conference , titled “Public Safety and Crimefighting in the Age of Twitter,” attendees were given a copy of a list of “Dos and Don'ts” on police use of social media, prepared by investigative journalist Joe Domanick) as part of a case study for the conference.

Domanick offered the following tip: “When using social media tools, or posting on a web page, it must be assumed that exchanges and comments can be accessible publicly—and can be searched by the media. It is therefore crucial to avoid posting anything that could embarrass a department or compromise an officer's ability to do his or her job.”

Those italics are Domanick's, not mine.

By now, we have seen enough leaked photos of nude celebrities and confidential emails among business and government leaders to intuit the truth of what Domanick is telling us.

And Domanick was only expressing what many police departments around the country already know. Many departments have built such cautionary approaches into their policies on social media. So, in fact, has New York's police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, which advises members to “stay off social websites.”

But let's be honest. If they had fully comprehended the danger of exposure in posting online, they would simply have kept such comments among themselves.

In the end, what was bad for them was good for us. A former New York Police Department officer told me he often heard fellow officers make disparaging comments about the residents of their precincts.

Officers' frustrations are not groundless. The 71st precinct in Brooklyn, NY, where the parade takes place, is violent enough to be an “Operation Impact Zone,” a strategic area where the department deploys a flood of rookie police officers to tamp down persistent crime.

And the parade has at times turned violent.

Isolated shootings and stabbings have marred the celebration at least five times since 2003, including fatal shootings in 2003, 2005 and 2011. Patrolling the massive event can be daunting, according to the former officer, who did not wish to be identified because speaking about fellow officers is so frowned upon.

“Cops are working long shifts, sometimes in excess of 48 straight hours, and some of the neighborhood gangs use this street carnival as a means to cause problems,” he said.

However, he said, “Crown Heights and its residents suffer daily from criminal activity, but they should be able to trust the cops to help, not to think of them as savages.”

Of course, he is absolutely right.

If we can be grateful for anything in this sordid episode, it's that Facebook, Twitter and other social media sometimes expose ugly truths that already exist but are simply hidden from view. Although these officers confused Facebook with a locker room, they provided an uncensored glimpse of opinions that might shape how they conduct the crucial job of patrolling New York City neighborhoods.

It's no good pretending this kind of resentment doesn't exist, or that it exists in a vacuum. The police department and the media are going for the easy story if they keep this to a discussion of social media use among officers.

There should and will be news coverage after the results of the Internal Affairs investigation are submitted to the Department Advocate and any charges announced. (The likely possibility is “conduct unbecoming an officer.”)

And any good enterprise reporter would wonder how the department enforces social media policies among its officers. A good start would be checking to see whether such policies exist—and if not, why not.

Spokesman Paul Browne could not confirm that the NYPD—one of the country's largest police forces—had one when he was asked by New York's public radio station, WNYC.

But the most ambitious story would not be about these particular officers, or even Facebook and its effect on policing; rather, it would tackle the very real feelings the website played host to.

The interaction of race and crime is an incredibly complex issue that is discussed and explored at institutions like John Jay College and the Center on Media, Crime and Justice. The media should take a cue from stories such as these, and try to address the complexities as well. Making it a social media story would be too easy.

And too convenient for the police department.

It's worth noting that this Facebook page was exposed well before the New York Times report. Two Brooklyn defense attorneys found the page and presented some of the comments during the gun-possession trial of a Brooklyn man in November. The man had been arrested just before the 2010 parade.

The arresting sergeant was a member of the Facebook group, though he testified that he did not post any comments.

The defendant was later acquitted.

Here find the response of the West Indian American Day Carnival Association to the Facebook page.

Alexa Capeloto is Assistant Professor of Journalism at John Jay College and former Enterprise Editor at the San Diego Union-Tribune. She welcomes comments from readers.

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