The Black Lives Matter protests last year were sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and fueled by years of concerns that police treated Black people and other minorities much more harshly than they did white people.
If police in this region are worried that they are perceived as being antagonistic to minorities, a Facebook group like Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom does not help their cause.
Early last week, the Associated Press reported that some posts on the group’s Facebook page were, to put it diplomatically, eye-opening. A private group designed to let members “decompress, rant and share ideas,” a noteworthy number of the posts reportedly centered on day-to-day aspects of policing like equipment and training. But about 25 members of the forum used it to rage about Black Lives Matter, police chiefs who took a knee with protesters, coronavirus safety measures, “demoncrats,” and Joe Biden.
One person posting to the group suggested that protesters who would block traffic in the Pittsburgh area following the shooting death of Antwon Rose by police in 2018 be subject to water cannons and dogs, clearly echoing the tactics of Southern law enforcement in the civil rights era. Another ridiculed Black Lives Matter, calling it “Black Lies Matter.” Former Pennsylvania Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine was also on the receiving end of venom. She was called “he,” “it” and a “freak,” and one member suggested she should be shot. Some members of the group apparently also tried to get an Allegheny County 911 dispatcher fired for criticizing the Blue Lives Matter movement.
Lou McQuillan, the police chief in Mount Pleasant Township, was one of the group’s four administrators and is running to be a magisterial judge in May’s primary. He posted an article four years ago about a civil settlement that had been reached in the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and expressed anger about the earnings that had been lost by Darren Wilson, the officer who shot him. McQuillan told AP that he regretted “the loss of any life” and his posts and comments were “meant to support law enforcement and police officers everywhere.”
The Pittsburgh area is not at all unique when it comes to police letting loose on social media. In the 2019 Plain View Project, Philadelphia attorneys looked at the Facebook accounts of more than 3,000 active or retired police officers and uncovered thousands of posts that advocated police brutality, or were racist and sexist.
It goes without saying that policing is a tough job. And police, like anybody else, have the right to blow off steam. Also, like any other profession, police forces are likely to contain a mix of people with virtues and vices. But it’s unsettling to be confronted with evidence that some officers hold members of the public they have sworn to protect with such bilious contempt.
Police across the United States have been having a hard time of late with recruitment, but they should not succumb to the temptation to hire subpar candidates. They should place a priority on those who can deal with the public with empathy and are committed to defusing tense situations, rather than amping them up. They should also try to weed out candidates who have racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic views, or have links to white supremacist or extremist groups.
Police – and everyone else, for that matter – also need to remember what they state on social media isn’t private, even if it is said in a private group. The best guidance is that if you wouldn’t want something you say to be placed on a billboard next to a highway, you should probably keep it to yourself.