Throughout the lynching era, law enforcement officers were complicit in lawless killings and seemingly endorsed mob violence that targeted Black people who asserted their rights or challenged racial hierarchy. Generations of African Americans were traumatized by this history and distrust of law enforcement was widespread.
In recent months, multiple law enforcement officers have alarmingly voiced support for killing Black people, Democrats, and others who hold different political views. These statements undermine public support and strongly suggest that many law enforcement officers are unprepared to meet the demands of public trust and lack the essential commitment to protect and serve all community members.
While social media posts and recordings of candid conversations between law enforcement officers have long revealed that some officers have disturbing views and exhibit animosity that seriously undermines public safety, there has been a measurable increase in violent hate speech espoused by law enforcement officers.
Starting in 2017, the Plain View Project surveyed police officers’ public Facebook posts after a team of attorneys in Philadelphia uncovered Facebook posts from local police officers that appeared to endorse violence and racism. The project examined the Facebook accounts of about 2,900 officers from eight departments across the country and an additional 600 retired officers from those same departments. Thousands of racist and violent posts were identified and compiled in a database that documents the systemic nature of this conduct.
Local police departments across the country have fired police officers whose social media posts and other online activity undermine the public trust, but the widespread and longstanding problem of officers advocating violence and bigotry online persists.
Following last week’s election, a police captain in Flomaton, Alabama, threatened voters on his personal Facebook page, NBC News reported. In response to a post criticizing people who voted for Joe Biden, he posted:
“They need to line up ev1 of them and put a bullet in their skull for treason.”
Flomaton Mayor Dewey Bondurant told NBC News that the officer has been warned about this behavior before. He was placed on paid administrative leave and resigned last Friday.
A police chief in Marshall, Arkansas, recently posted extreme comments calling for hangings, assassinations, and lawlessness in the nation’s capital. On October 17, the New York Times reported, Police Chief Lang Holland advocated for Democrats to be hanged, and last week, he posted on Parler, a right-wing messaging site:
“Will you and several hundred more go with me to D.C. and fight our way into the Congress and arrest every Democrat who has participated in this coup?”
“We may have to shoot and kill many of the Communist B.L.M. and ANTIFA Democrat foot soldiers to accomplish this!!!”
“Death to all Marxist Democrats. Take no prisoners leave no survivors!!”
Mr. Holland resigned on Saturday after screenshots of his posts were shared with the mayor’s office in Marshall, the Times reported.
Racial bias within law enforcement departments is a continuing concern. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have demonstrated against a barrage of police killings and shootings of unarmed Black people in recent months. That some police officers harbor extremely bigoted and racist views is hard to deny.
In North Carolina, police officer Michael “Kevin” Piner—a 22-year veteran of the Wilmington Police Department—threatened widespread murder of African Americans during extended, racist conversations with two other police officers, Cpl. Jesse E. Moore II and Officer James “Brian” Gilmore, the Washington Post reported in June.
Sitting in his patrol car, Officer Piner said that Black Lives Matter protests would lead to civil war, the Post reported. “I’m ready,” he told Officer Gilmore, who joined the department in 1997. He added that he planned to buy an assault rifle.
“We are just going to go out and start slaughtering them f—— n——,” he said. “I can’t wait. God, I can’t wait.”
Later, Cpl. Moore—a Wilmington police officer since 1997—called Officer Piner and repeatedly used a racial slur in reference to a Black woman he had arrested, the Post wrote.
“She needed a bullet in the head right then and move on,” Moore said. “Let’s move the body out of the way and keep going.”
Racial slurs and suggestions to kill Black people pervade the officers’ conversations, which were recorded accidentally by a patrol car camera. The Washington Post reported that a sergeant found the nearly two-hour-long clip while conducting routine video reviews and reported it to a supervisor.
“Wipe ’em off the f—— map,” Officer Piner said of Black residents. “That’ll put ’em back about four or five generations.”
When Internal Affairs showed the men the recording, the Post recounted, each of them said they were just “venting” and blamed the “stress of today’s climate in law enforcement.”
These conversations were “brutally offensive,” new Wilmington Police Chief, Donny Williams, told the Washington Post. “There are certain behaviors that one must have in order to be a police officer, and these three officers have demonstrated that they do not possess it.” All three officers were fired.
“When I first learned of these conversations, I was shocked, saddened and disgusted,” Chief Williams said. He called for wider recognition of the need to root out this type of behavior among police officers. “We must establish new reforms for policing here at home and throughout this country,” he said.
Much of the credibility of law enforcement depends not only on avoiding bias and discrimination but also on avoiding the appearance of bias and discrimination. There is growing evidence that serious and widespread problems exist within law enforcement agencies across the country that will have to be addressed to create the public trust that is essential to public safety.