ST. LOUIS — City police will undergo sensitivity training in the wake of recent allegations that some current and former officers made racist, violent and anti-Muslim Facebook posts, a top city official said Tuesday.
Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said the training will start next week with the department’s 60 to 70 sergeants, whom he called “the first-line supervisors” and then gradually involve the rest of the police force.
The training was announced a day after the police department said its internal affairs division would investigate the Facebook posts.
Edwards added that he believed that objectionable posts of the type cited by the Philadelphia-based Plain View Project had declined among police and other city employees after the city toughened its social media policy last September.
He also said several city workers had been disciplined for violating that policy and earlier versions since late 2017, including two public safety employees who were fired. He wouldn’t comment on whether any were police officers.
However, he said the Plain View project’s findings shows that the issue needed to be addressed anew.
“It’s a snapshot, but enough of a snapshot that makes me concerned enough” to begin the sensitivity training, he said. “We have a fiduciary responsibility to not fall into the racism trap or the implicit bias trap.”
Meanwhile, Sgt. Heather Taylor, president of the Ethical Society of Police — which represents African American city officers — said Tuesday it had filed a complaint with police internal affairs regarding the Plain View findings.
“Our membership is livid,” Taylor said. All officers, she said, “are supposed to be impartial.” Just because officers are off-duty, she said, “doesn’t mean … we are free to say anything we want.”
She also said her organization had filed complaints to internal affairs as far back as 2016 about similar objectionable social media posts by officers, including some on Plain View’s list.
She said some officers had been disciplined as a result but she wasn’t allowed to release their names. In some cases, she said, officers received suspensions without pay. But she said she wasn’t aware of any dismissals because of the society’s complaints.
Some of the St. Louis-based Facebook posts in the Plain View report display the Confederate battle flag and question whether Black History Month is racist. Others celebrate the roughing up of protesters and the shooting of criminals, objectify women and mock foreign accents.
Others use homophobic language, mock the Black Lives Matter movement and express disgust for Islam.
Emily Baker-White, who founded the project, said researchers also included in their list of questionable Facebook posts those that “might affect our basic trust in policing” unrelated to race, religion or sexual orientation. That would include police officers using “dehumanizing” wording when talking about the law, she said.
The Facebook posts cited in the report drew criticism Tuesday from some city aldermen.
Alderman Megan Green, D-15th Ward, said she hopes that the attention paid the St. Louis social media posts by the national study will result in the removal of some officers here.
Alderman Joe Vaccaro, D-23rd Ward, who chairs the board’s public safety committee, said he was surprised to learn of the posts and that he plans to have his panel look into the issue.
“These kinds of posts are not appropriate and I am glad (the city) instituted a policy to stop this,” said Vaccaro, whose son is a city police officer. “I read some of them; they’re pretty hateful.”
“I get that people get frustrated in their job,” he said, but that doesn’t justify such posts.
Alderman Brandon Bosley, D-3rd Ward, said the Facebook posts could help “breed mistrust of the police” and suggested that police get some psychological training.
Their comments followed a statement issued Monday by Mayor Lyda Krewson that called the Facebook posts “disturbing and unacceptable.”
The Plain View project studied Facebook posts by current and former officers in St. Louis and seven other jurisdictions around the country. The group’s database surveyed more than 5,000 Facebook posts from 3,500 Facebook accounts.
Among the accounts with objectionable posts, the project says, are 22 tied to current St. Louis officers and 21 to former city officers.
The project began in 2017 and used rosters of police officers and then verified their Facebook accounts, according to the group’s website.
All but one of the more than 160 posts on the project’s website alleged to be tied to current St. Louis officers were dated before last year. Baker-White said researchers stopped looking for new posts about a year ago.
In addition to St. Louis, the Plain View project tracked Facebook posts for officers in Philadelphia; Dallas; Phoenix; York, Pa.; Twin Falls, Idaho; Denison, Texas; and Lake County, Fla.
“For whatever reason … we did see a somewhat smaller proportion (of officers) in St. Louis posting this content than we did in other jurisdictions,” Baker-White said.
Edwards, the public safety director, said the sensitivity training for police will be conducted by the city personnel department. He said it will be in addition to existing annual reviews and training that includes a rundown on social media regulations and equal employment rules.
Rachel Rice of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.