Campus Officers' ‘Offensive’ Online Posts Prompt Mass Firings

Hampton University fired nine police officers for posting offensive, racist and misogynistic material on social media. Experts say the social media activities of campus officers and other law enforcement officials are under heightened scrutiny.

July 29, 2019
 
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Hampton University, a private institution in Virginia, fired nine of its campus police officers last week for posting “misogynistic, racist … remarks” on social media.

The historically black university provided few specific details on the matter other than releasing a written statement saying that the Hampton University Police Department officers were fired for “egregious violations of the university’s code of conduct.” The identities of the officers have not been made public.

“After a full investigation, it was determined that the officers shared misogynistic, racist and other offensive remarks via social media,” the university said in the statement. “The university has a zero tolerance for such behavior.”

A university spokesman did not respond to a request for more information about what comments were shared on social media or how the institution learned about them. A spokesperson for the police department responded to a similar inquiry by directing the caller to the university spokesman.

The move by the university police department reflects the heightened scrutiny and growing intolerance for offensive content espoused by law enforcement officers on social media platforms in the wake of an ongoing national debate over racially biased policing and police brutality toward mostly black victims. Similar cases of law enforcement officers posting offensive, hostile and overtly racist comments on social media have made local and national headlines in recent months.

WAVY.com's 10 on Your Side news program obtained a copy of a termination letter that WAVY.com reporters said was sent to one of the fired Hampton University officers and signed by Ronald Davis, the department's police chief. The letter appears to be addressed to one of the fired officers, whose name was redacted. Davis said in the letter that an investigation by the department found the officers participated in a “meme war,” which he described as a "jovial release of photographs and captions designed to level insults at others in the group as well as persons outside the group."

“While you did not produce any of the memes, you admittedly participated in the group,” Davis wrote. “Your involvement is deemed inappropriate behavior and behavior unbecoming of an officer. The memes produced and shared in this group were egregious and extremely inappropriate to be shared in the workplace.

“As a result of your actions, I am recommending your immediate termination.”

Police forces, both municipal and on college campuses, have come under closer public watch for private behavior outside the job, said Sue Riseling, executive director of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators. This trend largely began after the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., five years ago spawned riots and exposed tensions nationwide between law enforcement and citizens of color who have historically suffered mistreatment by police.

A Philadelphia lawyer launched a database called the Plain View Project in June that chronicles more than 5,000 social media postings -- many of which were offensive -- made by officers from eight different police departments. The project allows users to search for officers’ names, ranks, badge numbers and jurisdictions. It led to the firing this month of 13 Philadelphia police officers after their racist, violent Facebook posts were unearthed.

ProPublica also brought to light a secret Facebook group in which current and former Border Patrol agents mocked the deaths of undocumented immigrants in a U.S. detention center and joked about throwing burritos at Latinx members of Congress. One posting in the group included an illustration of U.S. representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaging in faux oral sex with a migrant who had been detained.

“Because police have the ability to enforce the law and deprive someone of their liberties temporarily based on probable cause, there’s new scrutiny of their personal lives,” Riseling said. “People want to see if something they said taints their professional judgment. It’s something very much in the public domain now.”

Riseling said more campus police forces are developing social media policies that govern what is acceptable for officers to post. Police chiefs walk a delicate line developing these policies because officers often retain their First Amendment rights.

She said campus police departments are also vetting social media much more carefully before even making hires.

“Police are [on] the public payroll -- there is a different level of scrutiny on what can the police do outside their jobs … it’s pretty profound.”

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