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?