Is Social Media Surveillance The Fix For Racist Cops?

Nobody argues in favor of racist cops. What that means, of course, isn’t exactly clear, and depends largely on how one defines “racist.” If it’s Ibram Kendi, then they’re all racist if they’re not dedicated to his personal flavor of anti-racism. But if it’s anyone more moderate, even rational, it might be more focused on cops who are either anti-black or white supremacist.

This, too, might be an inadequate definition of racism, as there are many cops who are fairly confident they aren’t racist while still being pretty racist in action. meaning that they will assume people to be prone to criminality or violence based on race rather than conduct, and pre-emptively act in accordance with their prejudice. But Mother Jones offers a solution, a “road map,” to rid our police force of racist cops.

But waiting until after an armed insurrection to investigate officers with extremist views seems like far too little, too late. In the wake of the Capitol attack, legal scholars and activists argue that police departments should do much more to rid their teams of racist officers, including by regularly screening their social media posts. “They should be searching their emails and text messages for key words associated with far-right extremism and racial animus,” says former DC public defender Vida Johnson, an associate law professor at Georgetown University who has studied white supremacist infiltration of police.

The predicate was the Trump Insurrection of ’01, where it turned out that among the criminals were cops. How is it possible, some asked, that cops, COPS, were part of this extremist crowd of Trump nuts who stormed the Capitol? How did no one know?

In recent years, the Plain View Project, a collaboration between a Philadelphia lawyer and journalists at the nonprofit Injustice Watch, has documented around 5,000 bigoted social media posts by accounts belonging to current and former law enforcement officials. These days, many more posts are coming to light: One of the Virginia officers who posed for the Capitol selfie gave clues on social media weeks before the mob, writing on Facebook in December that he was prepared to start an armed rebellion, according to an FBI investigation. The other Virginia officer sent social media messages to a friend afterward, bragging that he’d peed in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s toilet. “[I]t was f***** amazing,” he wrote. (Both officers now say they did not participate in any violence or property damage in the Capitol.)

It’s not as if social media posts, with some exceptions, are private. If cops want to be racist on social media, openly expressing their views that one race is superior to another, or another race is inferior, is there anything wrong with police departments monitoring their officers to ascertain whether Officer Friendly in the precinct isn’t nearly as friendly in his public expressions?

Johnson ties the efficacy of this monitoring to Brady.

Both police departments and prosecutors’ offices have an obligation under something called the Brady doctrine. There’s a case called Brady v. Maryland that was a Supreme Court case several decades ago, and it said the government—and the government means both prosecutors and police—has to turn over any information that’s favorable to the defense for use by the defense at trial. For example, if a complaining witness in a case has a prior conviction for perjury, that’s something they need to turn over to the defense so that the defense can cross-examine that witness with that information. Similarly, I argue that issues of police discipline and anything else you could cross-examine a police officer about should be turned over to the defense.

Is it part of the prosecution’s Brady obligation to reveal to the defense that the arresting officer spews racist garbage on twitter? But who decides what’s racist? And is it enough to review public social media posts or should it dig deeper, into more private utterances in search of bad thinking or expression?

We really need independent people looking into both prosecutors’ decisions on whether to prosecute police officers and also the issue of officer discipline. A good police department would pay an outside group to do an internal review of the social media policies, searching for emails and text messages of police officers. Because you’re more likely to root out the problem when you don’t have people who may have been to an officer’s daughter’s birthday or wedding being the one looking into whether they should stay on the force.

Do cops have as much right to think, to believe, what they choose to believe without review by “independent” people? Do they have a right to privacy in their emails, or do they forfeit all privacy by being police officers? Where is the line drawn between racist and disagreeable opinions and beliefs?

And if it’s a valid means of vetting cops, why not prosecutors? Why not judges? What not every public employee, all of whom exercise authority in the system that, some argue, is inherently racist?

Then again, if all of this sounds remarkably Big Brother-ish, consider that it’s already being done, except not to cops but by cops, when it comes to gangs (as just one example). Same thing?

Even if police departments had to do these social media investigations themselves, wouldn’t they be pretty well equipped to do it? Since they already have teams of people who analyze social media posts of suspected gang members or people suspected of criminal activity.

Yeah, big police departments do. But it’s so easy to scrutinize someone different than you. It’s a different matter to dive deep into someone who you know well. The tendency is to give them the benefit of the doubt, cut them some slack. You try to read a different meaning into what their post says. So I think we don’t want to leave it to other police officers who may have known the officer they are looking into since they were a cadet. Or they’ve been to the bar with them, they’ve been to each other’s weddings. That’s a recipe for more of the same.

Of course, this truism, that there’s an inclination to be more generous in the interpretation of words and thoughts of those with whom we can identify than those with whom we can’t, or worse, with whom we disagree, cuts both ways. No decent person would suggest that racist police aren’t a serious problems, but is this a road map to eliminating racist cops or does this open Pandora’s Woke Surveillance Box?

Bear in mind, no one is entitled to be handed a gun and shield, but even police officers are entitled to some degree of privacy and breadth of belief. If they behave properly, are they entitled to their personal “wrongthink”? Then again, if they think wrong, can we trust their motives in how they behave? Either way, is surveillance of cops the baby step on the slippery slope with nothing to prevent the slide to the bottom?

28 thoughts on “Is Social Media Surveillance The Fix For Racist Cops?

  1. Erik H

    Not to mention:
    If they’re going to spy on everyone, why do they only care about one kind of problem?

    They don’t seem to care about extremism other than right-wing: bias other than anti-black; belief in supremacy other than white.

    If they want to play the “avoid extremism” card they should do it fairly.

    1. SHG Post author

      It starts with a cause so overarchingly important that all other considerations are trumped or ignored. Once they looking, you never know what else they see. “Somethings must be done.”

  2. Bruce Coulson

    If the monitoring is limited to public media posts, then I think it’s possible for this to be done without going down the rabbit hole. Public posts are, well, public. It’s no more a crime or an invasion of privacy to look at them then it is to read the morning paper. And as for the idea that racist cops will just hide their feelings… I’m sorry, but history has shown that racists (almost) always have to share their beliefs with the world. Police are already without much privacy (bank records monitored, for instance) so I don’t think looking at posts that are public is really going to change things.

    1. SHG Post author

      Even if it doesn’t go down the rabbit hole, despite all of human experience, who decides what’s racist? Cops tend to be a bit on the conservative side, with a somewhat jaundiced view of humanity, that might strike other people as problematic.

  3. John Barleycorn

    You really ought to be more optimistic and go long with your thinking esteemed before the cop-ers are forced to explain themselves.

    With this single post you bought up nineteen question marks. Heck, there are only twenty six letters in the alphabet…

    So even with OT how can you expect the cop-ers to be able to afford the remaining question marks in the Justice Conglomerate when they are forced to answer future inquiry questions by buying back all the questions marks, so they can keep on answering inquiry questions by poising questions of their own…

    Questions are not like cornering the pig bellies market esteemed one, as folks will pay any price for bacon in the end, but shorting them question marks could lead to systematic Justice Conglomerate failure…

    Now where did I leave that tube of liquid bacon? My toast needs a squeeze…

  4. rxc

    Back when Senator Gore invented the internet, I told the government officials who worked for me that they should never write anything in an electronic communication, of any sort, that they would be embarrassed to have their mother read on the front page of the Washington Post. I think this advice is still valid.

  5. Rengit

    Back in the Warren Court heyday of all those cases on free speech, freedom of association, rights against government surveillance, and so on, the Chicago police department in the late 60s was weighing expelling members of the PD who were confirmed to be Klan members; not just racists, full-on Klan members, and this at a time when the Klan was still very violent and dangerous. The ACLU went strongly against it, noting the danger this presented to freedom of political expression and association.

    Given that definitions of “racism” and “racial bias” tend to be very politically loaded, and often exercised in a political fashion, I can’t see how monitoring police officer’s social media for racism or racial bias, even if expressed publicly while off-the-job, wouldn’t end up as a de facto political test, except in some specific situations where an officer says something about conducting his job in a blatantly racist fashion like “If I see a black male with tinted windows, I pull him over.” That sort of thing is not merely amorphous bias, but a statement of conscious intent to racially discriminate in the course of performing the job.

    1. SHG Post author

      What would the new and improved ACLU have to say about this? I suspect they would cheer rather enthusiastically.

  6. L. Phillips

    To answer your final question. Yes.

    Back when Facebook was becoming a “thing” our electronic intel guys repetitively told anyone who would listen to stay away from FB and similar programs. Their concern was more for our safety and that of our families than job security, but they saw this coming years ago and almost no one in the department listened.

  7. ExpatNJ

    Does ‘Social Media Surveillance’ violate the ‘Garrity Rule’ or not ?
    Please show your work.

  8. Pedantic Grammar Police

    There’s no need for anyone to be paid to search social media for evidence of wrongthink on the part of police or anyone else. Helpful volunteers are already doing it.

    1. SHG Post author

      And that’s, indeed, noted in the interview. There’s no shortage of organizations ready to take on racism under every rock.

  9. Jake

    While I agree to monitor anybody’s social media presence is problematic, the whole ‘who gets to decide’ trope is getting old, Scott. If you don’t think racism can be objectively identified just bow out. Plenty of us know what it looks like.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m sure you believe that plenty of you do. That’s what scares those of us who are disinclined to trust you to be the new Torquemada.

    2. Ken Mackenzie

      But rather than offer an objective definition or test, Jake claims the support of a sufficiently large, unidentified mob. It almost makes Scott’s point for him.

      1. Jake

        Racism is a thing. It has an objective definition. Sorry for assuming that if you’re reading SJ you don’t need someone to explain to you how to open a dictionary.

    3. Drew Conlin

      Of course you think, know, believe, that racism can be objectively identified Jake….. that is until someone (objectively of course) identifies you as racist….

  10. David Meyer-Lindenberg

    What an interesting article. I think the reporter did a good job with very little – Professor Johnson’s reasoning’s disjointed, her explanations of things like the Pickering-Connick test are facile if not plain wrong, and her English sucks. The idea that she represented clients at PDS terrifies me.

    Anyway. Regardless of whether it’d be “decent,” in the sense of “not amounting to a new HUAC,” for there to be governmental bodies combing through officers’ social-media presences, I bet such a change wouldn’t so much deter cops from being bigoted as from admitting it as freely as they do today. If racist cops absolutely want to put themselves on display for the world to see and CDLs to profit by, great! Why complain? What’s Professor Johnson trying to fix here? When she says “I think we’re at a point where to not look into [cops’ racist posts] is like putting your head in the sand,” why doesn’t she ask herself how we got to this not-obviously-bad-for-CJ-reformers point, or whether they’d have similar access to useful information if the changes she wants took effect?

    1. SHG Post author

      Like so many shallow ideas, it might work once, but driving racist speech underground doesn’t eliminate racism, but merely conceals it.

      But pointing out that a facile solution is facile usually evokes the facile response: Oh? So what’s your solution then? To people who embrace simplistic fixes, this is a valid reaction, as if Mencken never existed.

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