New York Post
December 11, 2011


NYPD cops in trouble over racist rants

By COLLEEN LONG
The Associated Press

The Facebook group was titled "No More West Indian Day Detail," referring to police patrol for the huge, raucous annual Brooklyn parade.

Sprinkled among the frustrations aired about regulating the crowded, loud, sometimes-violent event were more offensive comments. Some called the parade, held in a predominantly black neighborhood, "ghetto training," and a "scheduled riot." Others called participants savages.

The West Indian Day Parade celebrates Caribbean culture and is one of the city's largest outdoor events. But sometimes there is violence along with it. After this year's parade, a woman was shot to death sitting on her stoop with her daughter, as police exchanged gunfire nearby with an armed man who'd just shot at another person. Others were shot to death during celebrations in 2003 and 2005.

"Maybe next year they should hold it on Riker's Island," one Facebook post read, referring to the city's main jail.

At least 20 such comments on the page may have come from police officers, New York Police Department officials said this week. Internal affairs detectives are interviewing officers under oath and getting subpoenas for computer records. Departmental charges could be brought, Commissioner Ray Kelly said.

He said the department can discipline behavior determined to be unbecoming of a police officer or detrimental to the service, including online outbursts.

"It is disturbing when anyone denigrates a community with hateful speech. It is unacceptable when police officers do it," Kelly said in a statement.

But the posts, however embarrassing or outrageous, also raise a First Amendment issue about whether officers should watch what they say, online and off.

Government employees must be able to express their opinions, said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. Unlike private employees, governmental employees like police officers and firefighters are protected under the First Amendment that says the government can't restrict free speech.

"That comes into play not only when we like what they have to say, but also when they say obnoxious, disgusting and hateful things," she said.

Police officers are naturally guarded, and don't often talk about the job, at least not publicly. Thee Rant, an online forum wherein writers air angry and occasionally bigoted grievances about the nation's largest department and the city it serves, is anonymous.

But in the Facebook group, comments with names and photos were posted in arguably the most public of online forums. Some used the NYPD shield as their profile image. Even some of those who wrote in cautioned about being too explicit, and warned that the department was watching. None of the people whose names were associated with the posts replied to attempts to contact them for comment.

The city's largest police union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, has long urged members to avoid social networks. In a union magazine column called "Tweeting all cops: Stay off those social networking sites," treasurer Joseph Alejandro said technology simply presents problems for police officers that it doesn't for civilians.

"Using these technologies can present a real risk to police officers' careers because information posted on them can easily be misrepresented and used against an officer," he wrote.

Police departments around the country prohibit officers from making any statements that have anything to do with work, said Maria Haberfeld, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. The officers know this when they join, and, like the military, they should abide by the rules, she said. If the posts were from officers, then they violated the rules.

"It's a very political profession," she said. "It's a public profession. It's not just seen as one officer doing it; it's seen as coming from the department." The Facebook group, which had more than a thousand supporters, has been taken offline, but copies of the posts were made public by lawyers who used the remarks in the trial of a Brooklyn man arrested before last year's parade.