Philly police release hundreds of disciplinary records for 'Facebook cops'
(Miguel Martinez for Billy Penn)
As Philadelphia police leadership deals with fallout over the Facebook scandal, WHYY and Billy Penn have obtained an unprecedented release of disciplinary records linked to hundreds of officers whose social media posts have come under fire.
The newly released records detail civilian complaint histories for 309 of the 323 active-duty Philadelphia officers who also appeared in a database of racist or otherwise offensive Facebook posts.
The database, published last month, spurred nationwide outrage and led to dozens of officers being taken off street duty. District Attorney Larry Krasner warned that an unknown number of police could end up being barred from testifying at criminal trials.
Capt. Sekou Kinebrew, spokesman for the PPD, said the latest release of disciplinary records is the largest such disclosure in departmental history.
“As best as I can determine, we have not released this volume of [civilian complaint] numbers pursuant to a singular request,” Kinebrew said.
The records were obtained through an information request filed by WHYY and Billy Penn. They show that 153 of the officers who appeared in the Facebook database, compiled by a group called the Plain View Project, accrued at least one civilian complaint since 2015. Some of the officers have been previously identifiedfor their extensive complaint histories.
In total, civilians lodged 338 complaints against this group of officers in the past five years. They alleged misconduct ranging from minor departmental violations to purportedly criminal acts.
However, 160 other officers named in the Facebook database had not received any civilian complaints at all. The department did not release records for 14 other officers, asserting that they could not be located.
Of those cited in the latest release, 12th District Officer Marc B. Marchetti tops the list. The patrolman has been named in 16 different civilian complaints since 2015 — about one complaint every three to four months. In that same period, the vast majority of PPD officers received zero or one complaint, according to a WHYY analysis of complaint data.
Grievances aimed at Marchetti include multiple physical abuse and harassment allegations, including several involving juveniles. Internal Affairs ordered training and counseling for Marchetti in three cases for violating lesser departmental guidelines.
Marchetti appears in the Facebook database for a 2015 comment he made on a post about a woman reportedly fending off home invaders with a firearm.
“Would have been better to see at least one guy shot in the head,” Marchetti wrote.
Police officials have condemned many of the more vitriolic posts cited in the database, while downplaying the severity of others. The head of the police union defended much of the content as merely “cops being cops and venting.” However, Commissioner Richard Ross has placed 72 officers on desk duty while their social media histories are under investigation.
Ross also promised that some of those benched officers, who remain unnamed, would be fired in an attempt to restore public trust in the scandal-rocked department. Spokesman Kinebrew declined to say if police brass are reviewing each officer’s disciplinary history in conjunction with their social media posts.
Despite swift backlash from departmental leadership, it is unclear if officers’ social media accounts were ever monitored for red flags. But the department does profess to monitor civilian complaints for warning signs of officers who may be unfit for street duty. It has also drawn criticism in the past for the failures of its internal disciplinary system, which rarely results in serious consequences, even in the few instances in which Internal Affairs sustains a civilian’s complaint.
Complaints and Facebook posts could impact criminal cases
There is no clear correlation between the volume of offensive Facebook posts an officer made and the volume of complaints they received.
Top complaint-getter Marchetti, for example, was flagged for just one comment by the Plain View Project, while some of his colleagues with no civilian complaints were among the most aggressive online posters.
Overall, police whose social media habits are now under intense scrutiny were more likely to be accused of misconduct. Of the officers that appeared in the Plain View Project database, 48% received one or more civilian complaint in five years, compared to 38% for the department as a whole.
Attorneys say the combination of these disciplinary records and social media posts will have a major impact on future criminal proceedings in which these officers are key witnesses.
“All of those officers are now vulnerable in court, they’re vulnerable in the DA’s office, they’re vulnerable with every criminal investigation they’re involved with,” said criminal defense lawyer Troy Wilson.
Officer Justin Donohue of the 35th District was one of the officers cited in the Facebook database. Working on the streets of North Philadelphia, he has been named in nine complaints lodged by civilians since 2015. That total makes him a significant outlier in a department where fewer than 2% of all officers receive as many complaints, according to a WHYY/Billy Penn analysis.
The department found Donahue guilty of verbally abusing a civilian in one case, as well as breaking unspecified departmental policy in three others. He was assigned training and counseling. Internal investigators dismissed four other complaints against him involving physical abuse and harassment.
The details of these allegations were recently scrubbed from the city’s public records. However, they won’t be hidden for long if Donahue ends up on the witness stand.
The North Philly district Donohue patrols is home to numerous mosques and a large Muslim community. In his Facebook posts, the patrolman urged a ban on face coverings for Muslim women. In 2012, he shared an article about protests in Iraq after a former U.S. Marine struck a lenient plea deal over his involvement in the 2005 Haditha massacre of Iraqi civilians.
“Who gives a flying F*** if the iraqi’s [sic] are pissed. F*** them and their country,” Donohue wrote. “They should take all the iraqi’s that were at the court hearing and piss on them outside the court room and broadcast it nationaly and tell the rest of the world who is mad to also go F*** them selves.”
To Wilson, the defense lawyer, these Facebook posts alone could have an impact on Donohue’s testimony in any criminal case in which the defendant is Arab or Muslim.
Add the pile of disciplinary priors to the mix, and the officer becomes a liability for the prosecution, Wilson said. Defense attorneys like himself will subpoena the grisly details of an officer’s complaints and introduce them as evidence alongside the Facebook posts.
“If my client is Muslim, I’m going to subpoena that officer’s disciplinary file with the City of Philadelphia, and I’m going to get the Facebook information, and I’m going to cross-examine that officer about his feelings about Muslims,” Wilson said. “If you’re the DA, good luck with winning that case against me.”
Kinebrew, the police spokesman, declined to make officers available for interviews.
WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.