Would you want your kids reading a lot of the cop comments on public websites? #%#* no! (iStock Photo)
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I’ve previously written about officers making headlines with indiscreet postings on their social networking sites and the resulting disciplinary actions, firings and public mistrust of police. In most of those instances, the officers had privacy settings and their comments still got out.
- Facebook Comments Can Get Law Enforcement Officers Fired
- Facebook, Free Speech & Firing Words
- Roadkill on the Info Highway
Here I’m writing about public cop comments. This is the first in a planned three-part series. This article examines what, where and possibly why we’re seeing cops post public comments on the Internet that have more in common with gansta rap than civil discourse. Future articles will discuss whether such comments are firing offenses and violate the profession’s Code of Ethics, and what, if anything, the profession should do.
Last October, a Florida trooper’s video camera footage of her high speed, Code 3 pursuit of a local police officer speeding in his patrol car to get to an off-duty job ended up on YouTube. The incident generated a clash in public Internet comments from police and citizens.
Covering the fray, the Miami Herald reported, “On the LEO website used by law officers, one person posted: ‘Please know tonight that citizens across this country are reading your posts … I support law enforcement but am telling you now that you are and will lose in the court of public opinion on this issue if you continue to debate this in open forums.’’’
If citizens that support the police are expressing concern over what cops are saying publicly, we ignore this issue at our peril.
Public opinion encompasses:
- Judges and jurors determining officers’ credibility in criminal cases.
- Community trust -- or not -- and the resultant officer safety.
- Community support -- or not -- and the implications for law enforcement funding and resources.
- Whether policing is seen as a “profession” and the attendant implications for recruitment, hiring, retention, training, salaries and public opinion (repeat above).
A New Norm of Expression?
Experts opine that what the police do and the way they do it reflect the values of the communities in which they exist.
A society of free speech can be messy. Our history is punctuated with Congressional fist fights and duels, a Civil War and civil unrest. That said, uncivil expression seems to be rising.
- “Road rage” -- aggressive or angry behavior that might include rude gestures, verbal insults, deliberately driving in an unsafe manner or making threats -- was coined in the 1980s.
- “Gangsta rap” aggrandizing violence, profanity, sex, misogyny, homophobia, and racism -- amongst other evils -- was popularized in the same decade.
- School shootings and suicides resulting from the extreme incivility of bullying have risen in prominence.
- Name calling is daily news fodder in bipartisan bickering and political campaigning amongst our elected representatives.
Incivility -- “rude, boorish, uncouth, discourteous” behavior by police officers is also finding increasing public expression on the World Wide Web.
Cop Road Rage on the Information Highway
Following is a sampling of comments from law enforcement Internet sites that purportedly come from officers (based on their “handle,” icon, express statement in the comment, or all three).
Arguably, some could be posted by trolls. In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online forum with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or otherwise disrupting the conversation.
Indiana University: University Information Technology Services (2008-05-05). "What is a troll?" Indiana University Knowledge Base. The Trustees of Indiana University. Retrieved 2009-03-24.
I don’t believe even a significant number of the comments I reviewed or include here were posted by people pretending to be cops. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.
This sampling is small because of space limitations. For the same reason, not all comments are included in their entirety. Search the Internet and you can find countless more of similar content and tone. It’s painfully easy.
An article about a seat belt violation traffic stop that resulted in a complaint inspired:
- “I've got an idea. Since most beefs arise from traffic stops, how about we stop making them? Let people kill each other with their unsafe driving.”
- ”Dude you are an A*S*S! You have no facts and yet you condemen [sic] the officer's by using inflamatory [sic] language.” [I suspect the absurdity of calling someone an “A*S*S!” as you accuse them of inflammatory language is lost on the commenter.]
Comments to an article about a traffic stop that ended in a 9-1-1 call yielded:
- ”Act like a POS, get treated and talked to like a POS.” [The suggestion that bad behavior warrants officers behaving badly is staggering.]
- “This guy is just another turd with a chip on his shoulder.”
Responses to an article about the arrest of Occupy protesters included:
- “Good job, keep locking up them dirty s-bags, i.e. anarchists, subversives, counter-culturists, communists, socialists, dopers, whackos, convicts, hookers, deviants and thugs. Did I miss anyone?”
A video of an onlooker attacking one of two officers arresting a subject that recently went viral produced:
- “As far as the moron that tackled the officer....well, I'm sure he is one serious Obama supporter-liberal-loving-pot-smoking-brain-dead-apologetical-anarchist-dumb-ass.”
- “[W]e should blow up the whole city and start over. [T]hey bystanders are not even people, lups [sic] of s@#t.” [The commenter cared enough to come back and correct his spelling to “lumps of s@#t.”]
Some of these kinds of comments engendered responses from other officers. For example,
- “And to those who have to submit to name calling and using other profanities here, let's try to keep the comments/discussion here on a professional level. It embarrasses us all as career LE officers.”
In my unscientific sampling, such admonishments were drowned out by name calling and other profanities.
Does the Internet Foster Such Conduct?
I don’t know if the above attitudes have become more prevalent in law enforcement. But the Internet contributes to their public expression. It does so by encouraging cops to “sound off” [the invitation of one of the websites above its comments section]:
- Somewhat anonymously (I say “somewhat” because how hackers can penetrate such postings or how defense attorneys might subpoena or otherwise discover the officers behind them is beyond the scope of this article but I guarantee it’s “coming soon to a headline near you.”)
- Instantly (which enables “kneejerk”)
- In a public venue
I think it’s the anonymity or pseudo-anonymity of these Internet comments that largely contribute to their incivility. I haven’t seen a single similar kind of comment in a newspaper. Why? Newspapers won’t accept anonymous letters to the editor. Anonymity removes accountability.
I contacted editors from three different law enforcement websites. One has posted policies for its comments that include:
- People must “interact respectfully.”
- “There's no need to criticize the person for their views no matter how opposed to them you are.”
- “It is important that [this website] convey a professional environment.”
- “Posting messages that attack a person's character, race, ethnicity, culture, sexual orientation, intelligence or any form of degradation will not be tolerated.”
The other two editors replied by e-mail that, while they did not have formal policies, they regularly reviewed comments for profanity, personal insults, insults of specific classes of people and derogatory comments about law enforcement which they believed crossed their line, subjective as it might be.
I think many of the comments I sampled from these three sites fell below the bar set by the formal or informal editorial policies. But how can the websites’ staff possibly keep up with the mountains of comments? It can’t. The staff must rely on other readers -- other officers -- to enforce an acceptable code.
There are other possible explanations for comments appearing on such websites even if they violate formal or informal policies:
- Readership and advertising money.
- A desire to give officers a place to vent.
Having established that cop road rage is no rarity on the information highway, next month we’ll examine:
- Do these kinds of comments violate the Law Enforcement Officers’ Code of Ethics?
- Are they unprotected speech for which officers could be disciplined or fired?