City promises action against racist social media posters

CITY HALL – City officials are promising to redouble their efforts to disciple or even fire police officers who use social media to post demeaning, racist, homophobic or Islamophobic messages.

At a meeting of the Board of Aldermen’s Public Safety Committee on Monday, they emphasized that those who post such messages represent a small minority of the police department, about 2 percent. However, they said, even one person doing that is too many.

“You’re a police officer 24 hours a day, and your conduct is expected to reflect that,” Police Chief John Hayden said. He appeared before the committee with Public Safety Director Jimmie M. Edwards and Personnel Director Richard Frank.

But some in the audience disputed that it was just a few and said this was part of a pattern that had gone on too long.

The hearing came after city police began an Internal Affairs investigation of more than 400 racist, bigoted and violent Facebook posts by current and former St. Louis police officers.

Widespread condemnation came after news that a database revealed racist or violent Facebook posts from officers in eight departments, including the St. Louis police.

The database was created and distributed by a Philadelphia-based group, The Plain View Project. The Project examined Facebook posts from 2,900 current and 600 former officers in the eight police departments for violent, bigoted or racist content. The database includes 416 Facebook posts by current or former St. Louis officers.

The posts demeaned African-Americans, Muslims and Hispanics and glorified police violence against protesters.

“We don’t trust them to have our back,” said Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police, an organization of black police officers. She said a lot more than 2 percent of the police department was racist.

“You have racism going on in this police department, and it ain’t going away with sensitivity training,” said Bill Monroe, an African American former police officer.

But Edwards promised that anyone expressing such beliefs would be punished firmly.

“Those posts were racist. They were homophobic. They were abhorrent,” Edwards said. “We have serious problems with respect to those types of things being said. If you work for the St. Louis police department, your First Amendment rights will and shall have limitations.”

Edwards said a social media policy was put into effect in 2018. The posts in question were made before that time, he said.

About 44 officers have been identified, of whom 22 are still working for the police force, Edwards said.

“Those posts were made by both men and women, black and white and African American,” Edwards said. The three who made the most serious posts were placed on administrative leave.

“There is a process, and I understand the process,” Edwards said. “I suspect that there will be some situations and circumstances (in which) I will be constrained by the law.”

In the police department, Hayden said, “It’ll be an extensive process, it’ll be a very competent process, and hopefully, the end result will be that a lot of people’s expectations will be met.”

Frank said that all civil service employees must go through a one-day course when they start that includes training in the city’s social media policy. Every employee must sign a document saying that he or she understands the policy and must take a refresher course every three years.

Public Safety Committee Chairman Joe Vaccaro, who represents the 23rd Ward, emphasized that the people involved weren’t the majority of the police force.

“It’s a very small group, and things are being done within the limits of the law,” he said.

“We want to make this system better for everyone,” said committee member Jeffrey Boyd, who represents the 22nd Ward. “This is the beginning. This is an issue that has surfaced that has been disturbing and embarrassing.”

Those who signed up to speak emphasized that this showed the worst kind of racism within the police department.

John Chasnoff of the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression said he was confident that Edwards, Frank and Hayden were taking the matter seriously. But he also said that they were not able to continue in their jobs any more.

It’s not a matter of what percent of officers act this way, he said, but that the matter hasn’t been dealt with. 

“This police department has tolerated this kind of behavior for decade after decade,” Chasnoff said. “It’s been going on for too long.”

Chasnoff noted that a website called Cop Talk featured the same kind of comments 15 to 20 years ago.

Another speaker, Heather De Miar, said that even when a person was sharing memes, a question arose why he or she was following a certain page.

“This has been an issue for a long time. It’s been known for a long time,” De Miar said. “This is more than just social media. It’s a cultural problem.”

Susie Chasnoff said police chiefs came and went and made promises. “These are not random, isolated incidents,” she said.

Two speakers, Gina Torres and Toni Taylor, said they had lost sons in police-involved shootings.

“There’s nobody to run to because my kids are afraid of police,” Taylor said.

Taylor said the number of racist officers was much more than 2 percent. “These officers need to be fired,” she said.