Report details ‘lack of transparency’ in Philly P.D.’s handling of cops’ Facebook posts

Police academy cadets line up for graduation in 2017. (City of Philadelphia Flickr Photo/Samantha Madera, via The Philadelphia Tribune)

By Michael D’Onofrio

PHILADELPHIA — An independent report found the Philadelphia Police Department bungled disciplinary hearings against cops who posted violent and racist Facebook posts and “inappropriately shared” confidential information with the police union.

The city’s Police Advisory Commission detailed these and other troubling issues in a report Wednesday related to the police department’s response to the hundreds of officers caught up in the scandal last year.

The police department continues to stymie the advisory commission’s 14-month investigation by refusing to fulfil information requests from the commission, its executive director, Hans Menos, said in a letter accompanying the report.

While city attorneys have advised the department to deny the advisory panel access to information, Menos said Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw should reject those recommendations.

“This advice and the acceptance of this advice is an affront to oversight that should not be repeated,” Menos said.

In a 43-page report, the commission also listed several recommendations for the police department to put in place following the scandal.

Francis Healy, special advisor to Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, said in a letter to Menos dated on Tuesday that the commission’s report was welcomed. While he brushed aside some recommendation, calling one an “unfunded mandate,” Healy said the department was willing to explore others.

Healy said the social media posts and comments “undermine the integrity, respect and mission of the [Philadelphia Police Department].”

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“It adversely affects the trust we strive to build with all of Philadelphia’s communities and creates dissension with our ranks,” he said.

The city has hired the Philadelphia law firm of Ballard Spahr to assist with the department’s investigation into the social media posts, Healy noted.

At least four Philadelphia cops were fired and 11 resigned before they could be fired over the scandal. The police department initially put 72 officers on desk duty while it investigated the posts that identified 328 active-duty Philadelphia police officers. The department opened 27 internal affairs investigations related to the posts.

Lack of transparency

The department failed to win a single guilty finding against the first seven officers it brought disciplinary hearings against, according to the report.

As a result of the department’s 0-and-7 start to the disciplinary hearings, the discipline charges against the remaining officers were rewritten, causing delays according to the report.

In at least one example, an officer who was being investigated received an incomplete review, according to the report.

The advisory commission’s investigation reviewed more than 1,800 Facebook posts and comments made by police.

The police union also was privy to the police department’s confidential disciplinary decisions, according to the report.

Confidential information prepared by the law firm Ballard Spahr, which was used to guide the department’s disciplinary decisions, was “inappropriately shared” with the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5, according to the report.

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The department said the confidential information as shared “inadvertently,” according to the report.

The Plainview Project looked at Facebook accounts of about 2,900 active officers and 600 retired officers in Philadelphia and seven other departments, and found thousands of questionable posts.

The Plain View Project found more than 3,000 racist, sexist, violent or offensive posts allegedly by 328 active-duty Philadelphia police officers.

Overall, the department’s investigation process into the officers identified in the Plainview Project’s database, which was issued in June 2019, “lacked transparency,” the report found.

The most common themes in officers’ comments and posts were:

  • 358 instances: Islamophobia;
  • 284 instances: Making light of use of force;
  • 253 instances: Mocking opposing viewpoints; and
  • 231 instances: Coded racist language.

Despite public interest and pressure, the department kept nearly all information about its Internal Affairs Division’s investigations, discipline outcomes, and decision making shielded from the public, according to the report.

Police brass also chose to slap most officers with a less serious charge using its disciplinary code related to disobeying the social media directive rather than a more serious charge related to discriminatory communications, according to the report.

“This choice sidesteps the impact of this scandal because it is the content of the posts and comments that matters here, not simply the fact that the officers may have violated the PPD social media directive,” the report found.

Disciplining individuals officers also “falls short in fixing the harms done,” the report found.

“Themes present in posts and comments are damaging and disruptive to policing,” the report said.

Recommendations

The report listed the following recommendations for the police brass and the department:

  • Conduct an independent review of all aspects of the department’s culture, with a special focus on racism and sexism.
  • Grant full and timely access to the documents, information and personnel when requested by the PAC and future oversight bodies.
  • Create a clear policy that outlines the process for determining when investigations are deemed internal.
  • Decentralize disciplinary charging decisions and include external reviews of administrative processes for investigations related to large-scale or sensitive events.
  • Create a policy that requires personnel to recuse themselves from making charging decisions about officers they have relationships with.
  • Start a reconciliation process and provide public updates on those efforts.
  • Acknowledge the harm caused by the violent and racist Facebook posts by Philadelphia cops.
  • Use the database of violent Facebook posts for future training efforts

Michael D’Onofrio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared.