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The NYPD’s Facebook lesson

You might think, after reading William Glaberson’s story in today’s New York Times, that the NYPD is overrun with racist cops. The police department is in damage control mode after some officers published cruel, unprofessional remarks on Facebook about a parade in a mostly black area of Brooklyn. What does this teach us about social media?

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Here’s how the scandal unfolded: A pair of defense attorneys in Brooklyn were researching a case in which their client was charged with possessing a gun before the 2010 West Indian American Day Parade. The attorneys checked the Facebook profile of the officer who arrested their client and discovered he belonged to a Facebook group called “No More West Indian Day Detail.” The group (since deleted) had 1,200 members. When printed, its wall ran 70 pages. Many of the group’s postings appeared to be from NYPD cops complaining about having to work the parade, which has been the scene of acts of violence in past years.

According to Glaberson’s reporting, comments on the page used the words “animals” and “savages” to describe participants in the parade, called it “ghetto training,” said the parade should be “moved to the zoo,” proposed someone “drop a bomb” on the parade, and suggested, “Let them kill each other.” The comments had names attached. The attorneys used the arresting officer’s membership in the group to attack his credibility, and their client was acquitted. Later, the attorneys provided a copy of the Facebook group to the newspaper.

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Wow. Let’s state three obvious things first: 1) Racist cops are bad cops and should lose their badges. 2) Being a New York City cop is a tough job, and cops need to vent just like everybody else. 3) Complaining about an ethnic parade isn’t the same as being racist. But it can sound damn close.

What strikes me about this story is the absolutely reckless use of Facebook. When you’re complaining about work, context matters. You might spit venom about your job when you’re having a beer in your friend’s living room. But if someone read back a transcript of your words later, you’d be mortified. Facebook isn’t your friend’s living room; it’s more like the letters page of the newspaper. Nevertheless, many people can’t resist the temptation to share everything they’re thinking on Facebook. This includes people who are supposed to be complete professionals in all environments. Barriers fall when people feel they’re among friends.

The obvious advice is be careful. On Facebook, you should assume your posts are public to the whole world. Sure, Facebook (like most social websites) has privacy settings. I don’t understand them, and you probably don’t either. And regardless, if somebody can see something on a computer screen, they can always copy it and share it with anybody else.

My rule for social media is simple: Before I post something, I imagine the post being read back to me in the voice of the person I would least want to read it. If that test makes me feel uneasy, I don’t post.

The cops involved in this Facebook scandal could have saved their necks if they’d followed that test. Would they want a defense attorney, or their supervisor, reading a post degrading the citizens they’re supposed to be policing? Given time to think about their words, they would probably treat the public more charitably. Or… Are we to believe the police force is rotten, and the sentiments on that Facebook page are the truest insights we have into how our cops feel?

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It will be interesting to see if there’s any fallout from this story. Should NYPD officers who posted cruel messages on the “No More West Indian Day Detail” page lose their jobs? How about those who only joined the page but didn’t post anything?

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Update: Below is a document containing the text of the full Facebook group postings, via Gothamist, which also has some reactions by public officials.

No More West Indian Day Detail 9.7.11 612 Pm

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under News & Journalism, Social Media

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