‘Shocked’ Phoenix police chief pulls officers from duties after report of racist Facebook comments

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams addresses officers’ offensive Facebook posts

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams talks about offensive Facebook posts written by current and former officers that were found in a review by Buzzfeed News in partnership with Injustice Watch.

Sean Logan, The Republic | azcentral.com

Phoenix Police Chief Jeri Williams has pulled some officers who posted racist and inflammatory commentary on their personal Facebook accounts off of their “enforcement assignments.”

Williams’ announcement Tuesday followed a review by Buzzfeed News and the nonprofit news organization Injustice Watch, which found hundreds of officers across the country had posted racist or misogynist statements or condoned violence on their Facebook accounts. The reporters compiled the posts, dating back nine years, into a database.

“When I started looking more at the posts, I’ll be honest with you, I was shocked,” she said Tuesday during an interview with The Arizona Republic. “Shocked at the posts and the comments that clearly promoted and created hate and dissension.”

The database includes 179 questionable posts from 75 current Phoenix police officers and 22 retired officers.


Phoenix officers identified

According to the article, reporters examined the accounts of about 2,900 police officers from eight departments across the country, including Phoenix. They also reviewed the accounts of an additional 600 retired police officers from the same departments.

Many of the Phoenix officers’ posts endorsed violence, in some cases against Mexicans, Muslims, women and criminal defendants.

Phoenix Police Officer Joshua Ankert, who has been with the department since 2007, wrote, “CONGRATULATIONS GEORGE ZIMMERMAN!!! Thank you for cleaning up our community one thug at a time,” in July 2013, the day after a jury in Florida acquitted Zimmerman of murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin.

Phoenix Officer Ryan Nielsen, a 15-year veteran, wrote a Facebook post in March 2010 complaining about his “ghetto neighbors” having a party and making a lot of noise.

In the comment exchange with someone else, Nielsen wrote that he planned to buy a shotgun but that his AR — presumably referring to the AR-15 firearm — would help protect his house. He also said in the comment section that he may call the Sheriff’s Office and report the residence may be a drop house, a term used by law enforcement to describe a property where smugglers house undocumented immigrants as they await payments.

Officer David Pallas, who has been with the department since 1987, uploaded a meme on June 2016 critical of the Obamas. The meme depicts Michelle Obama with a quote that says, “Every single day I wake up in a house that was built by slaves…” Underneath it, there’s a picture of famed actor John Wayne with a caption that says, “THEN GET OUT! AND TAKE YOUR GAY MUSLIM HUSBAND WITH YOU.”

That same month, Pallas posted another meme depicting the Quran with a caption that reads: “HOW ABOUT BANNING THIS. IT OFFENDS ME!!”

The Phoenix Police Department’s social-media policy tells employees to be cautious of their “speech and related activity on social media sites” because it “may be considered a reflection upon their position, and, in some instances, this Department.”

It goes on to say that, “Employees are prohibited from using social media in a manner that would cause embarrassment to or discredit the department in any way.”

Free speech or hate speech?

Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio defended the officers’ “free speech,” saying that anyone who was offended is a “liberal snowflake.” He said the Facebook posts aren’t indicative of a biased culture within the Phoenix Police Department, which has about 2,900 police officers. He added that “free speech is messy.”

He also said that if the public scrutinized Facebook accounts of the general public, they would likely find similar comments. He added that police get called “Nazis, pigs, and murderers” by “anti-police groups” and still, officers “respond to every call and do their best to help, regardless of how the caller feels about them.”

“Individual cases that do rise to the level of hate will be investigated, and those individuals punished,” he said in a statement. “But to smear our entire department for the words — not actions, words — of a handful of officers is, at best, disingenuous, and is truly insulting to the literally thousands of men and women who put their lives on the line for us every single day and do so with honor. This is an attempt to shut down free speech, nothing more, nothing less.”

Mayor Kate Gallego described the Facebook comments as “hate speech” in a statement.

She said the Facebook posts leave a bad mark on the police department and that she was “embarrassed and disappointed” when she read the comments.

“This city has absolutely no place for hate,” she said. “While these officers are in no way representative of our city’s entire police force, or for that matter, our city, the choice by these officers to promote hate speech is a dark cloud over all of us. Our residents expect our city to provide the same level of service regardless of race, religion, or political beliefs, and we should deliver nothing less.”

Chief Williams made similar comments, saying in the interview that with free speech comes responsibility. She said she will revisit the department’s social-media policy and make a determination about whether it needs to be changed.

“While employees do have free speech as given to us under the Constitution, if comments that are made erode the trust, erode the respect, erode the public confidence, hinder the normal operations of my organization, then I have a responsibility to look into that,” she said.

She also said the language some of her officers used “don’t help” in gaining the public’s trust.

“We also need to send a very clear message that hate is not welcome in the city of Phoenix, it is not welcome in the Phoenix Police Department,” she said. “And quite frankly, this doesn’t just impact against this department. This impacts all of law enforcement across the country when you see things like this.”

Phoenix police is predominantly white

Nearly 73% of the department’s 2,937 sworn officers are white, while about 19% are Hispanic and 4% are African American, department data shows. That’s compared with a city that, according to U.S. Census data, has a population that is about 42% white, 43% Hispanic and 7% African American.

Last fall, the department began implementing implicit bias training for its officers. It was scheduled to last a year at a cost of $150,000, but could be extended for two more years, at a total price of $450,000.

Instructors are teaching officers about implicit bias, what causes it, how it affects the community, why it is problematic and how to be aware of one’s own bias on the job.

“The Phoenix Police Department has an immediate and critical operational need to provide implicit bias and cultural competence training to police officers,” officials wrote in their presentation materials for council last year. “Being aware of implicit bias and having the tools will strengthen the relationship between the police department and the community.”

*see full story on AZCENTRAL