Turning lemons into lemonade in response to racism
Police departments around the country were reeling last month after a study exposed racist social media posts from officers in eight departments, including Twin Falls.
But police and other public officials here say they don’t know why the report lumped Twin Falls in with the other cities since only nine social media posts from Twin Falls were included in the database of racist posts and six of them turned out to be from someone who wasn’t a police officer.
Police Chief Craig Kingsbury said the remaining three posts are relatively minor and don’t reflect racist attitudes from the officers.
The Plain View Project said it looked at social media accounts from 2,900 officers and 600 retired officers from police departments in Philadelphia; York, Pennsylvania; Dallas, Texas; Denison, Texas; St. Louis; Phoenix; Lake County, Florida; and Twin Falls.
It says it found one-fifth of the current officers, and two-fifths of the retired officers had in cities they studied had posts that “could undermine public trust in the police and reinforce the views of critics, especially in minority communities, that the police are not there to protect them.”
“Just another savage that needs to be exterminated,” posted a Dallas police sergeant about a homicide at a Dollar General store.
“Its a good day for a choke hold,” a Phoenix officer wrote.
The posts from Twin Falls include a link to an article that says police aren’t racists and that “#BlackLIESMatter.” Another is a meme shared from a police officer Facebook page that say “We don’t have a race problem or a cop problem. We have a MEDIA problem, a drug problem, a mental illness problem and an entitled welfare state breeding thugs problem.”
And the final legitimate entry includes a bible verse with a photo of a Marvel comic character called the Punisher, which is associated with the “Blue Lives Matter” movement.
“Many folks, including the creator of the character, have pointed out that law enforcement associations with the Punisher are problematic,” Plain View Project executive director Emily Baker-White wrote in an email to the Times-News.
Kingsbury said he doesn’t see that image as necessarily indicative of a racist attitude by the Twin Falls officer who posted it. And while other police departments have been disciplining officers whose posts were included in the study’s database, Kingsbury said he doesn’t understand how Twin Falls got involved in the study.
“I don’t understand how they chose Twin Falls,” he said.
Nor does the chief understand how the Plain View Project verified the identities of the police officers.
“I got a phone call two and a half months ago,” Kingsbury recalled on June 20.
He was asked for the police department’s social media policy and about any complaints against officers in regard to racism. When Kingsbury asked for the names of the Twin Falls police officers the project had identified, the caller would not provide the information.
It turned out one individual to whom the Plain View Project attributed six Facebook posts has no record of ever being a Twin Falls police officer, Kingsbury said. After some news stories about the project were published, the group removed those six posts from their database.
“I didn’t get a chance to address this,” before the results of the study were released, Kingsbury said.
“PVP used a number of verification process to confirm that a profile was maintained by an identified police officer,” the project says on its website. “Some users reported specific police departments as their employers; others posted pictures of themselves in uniform.”
Some discussed making arrests or performing other police duties, the website says.
“When we selected jurisdictions for the Plain View Project,” Baker-White told the Times-News in an email, “we weren’t necessarily looking for places that were hotbeds of Facebook activity; rather, we looked for variety — we wanted places that were both urban and rural, northern and southern, large and small.”
Images of Facebook posts were included in the database based on one question — whether that image might affect public trust in policing — Baker-White said.
Kingsbury said there has only been one complaint about a Twin Falls police officer Facebook post by a member of the public since he arrived at the department in November 2015. That complaint was confirmed by Brian Pike, Twin Falls deputy city manager of public safety.
Pike says he sees the Plain View Project study as beneficial.
“It’s a good reminder of how our presence online reflects what we do and who we are. ... We’ve worked really hard over the years to try to build trust,” Pike said. “It’s really easy to lose that trust.”
Alejandra Hernandez, the multicultural coordinator for the College of Southern Idaho, has lived in Twin Falls for four years and is a member of the city’s new Diversity and Inclusion Committee. Hernandez is active in the community, working with businesses, city government, law enforcement agencies and others to find ways to support minorities in the area, she said.
She finds the Twin Falls Police very supportive of the community.
“I have never personally had a bad experience with the police,” she said. “They have been so supportive of any initiative to support this community.”
In the nearly two years Alberto Mendez Jr. has served as Spanish language translator for the Twin Falls County Courts, the defendants he works with have never complained about racism among the Twin Falls police. Most complaints from people needing interpreter services are about being caught and put through the justice system, he said.
“As with all people, they don’t want to be held accountable,” Mendez said.
The study methods
The posts the Plain View Project are from a limited time-frame.
“We stopped looking at Facebook posts in early 2018,” Baker-White said. “While it’s possible that we would do further investigations down the line, we are not looking at more Facebook pages for the moment.”
They took “months to go through and vet, fact-check, and do additional research on each of the officers and posts,” she wrote.
Kingsbury wonders, after all that, why they were unable to confirm the identity of the individual who was never a Twin Falls officer. Part of that vetting and fact-checking was performed by Injustice Watch, a nonprofit founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Tulsky.
“Emily Baker-White approached us about a year ago with her extraordinary research effort,” Tulsky wrote in an email to the Times-News. “Injustice Watch immediately saw the news value, and set out both to confirm the accuracy of the research, and to supplement it.”
The primary focus was on the Philadelphia police department, the largest department selected for the study, Tulsky said. Baker-White confirmed that Injustice Watch was contacted in 2018 after the project learned of Tulsky’s previous reporting on criminal justice issues.
Social media policy Twin Falls Police have had a social media policy for 10 years, Pike said. That’s when the city’s Facebook page went live. The April 2019 revision of Twin Falls’ “Employee Speech, Expression and Social Networking” policy, which covers all city employees, acknowledges those employees have First Amendment free-speech rights, but clarifies, “Public employees occupy a trusted position in the community, and thus, their statements have the potential to contravene the policies and performance of this department.”
Social media policies used by the Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office, Jerome County Sheriff and the city of Gooding contain similar language.
The Twin Falls policy warns, “Employees should consider carefully the implications of their speech or any other form of expression when using the Internet.”
Twin Falls employees are advised in the policy not to endorse political campaigns or initiatives, social issues, causes or religions, products, services, companies or commercial entities. Following those guidelines is an important and ongoing part of all Twin Falls Police Department staff, Kingsbury said, adding the Plain View Project study did cause the department to have several internal conversations regarding the importance of thinking through what employees do, say or post in their off duty time.
“The men and women of the Twin Falls Police Department value our connection to the community,” Kingsbury said. “Trust is the No. 1 factor in having a good relationship with the community we police.”