Before 13 of them were fired a month later – as part of an effort which called out thousands of officers across the country – the man sent an email to the folks behind that research project that made national headlines.
He wasn't defending the officers. Instead, he had a personal story to tell, one that he'd hoped would prompt the Plain View Project to take a look at a similar problem in the Philadelphia suburbs. His email helped spur a similar initiative to scrutinize the social media accounts of law enforcement officers in Montgomery County.
The results of that project, shared exclusively with PhillyVoice, highlighted dozens of questionable posts and prompted seven law enforcement agencies in the county to launch internal investigations into officers' online behavior.
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Researchers found, among other disturbing posts, one law enforcement officer pictured in blackface and another officer claiming, before he joined a municipal police department, that a family services agency would be more effective if it just "shot and killed all the unfit parents."
“My uncle is a racist cop who posts racist material frequently," read the email from the man, who requested his identity be kept out of this story other than mentioning his ties to a long-time officer in Montgomery County. “He posts a lot of stuff. I would say most of it is annoying and stupid, but if you scroll enough you will find plenty of racist material.”
Emily Baker-White, the Philadelphia attorney who conceived of the Plain View Project, told PhillyVoice last week that the email – which proved to be an accurate assessment of that officer's Facebook feed – was one of many that have poured in during recent weeks.
“A lot of people have approached me, but we’re not looking into other jurisdictions at this time,” said Baker-White. So she passed the man's email along to a contact in Montgomery County.
Baker-White’s contact – a watchdog in the legal community who requested anonymity to protect working relationships with law enforcement – took it seriously enough to assign a team of researchers to scour social media posts from as many officers in Montgomery County’s 51 municipal police departments as they could find.
The effort had been percolating for a while, but not acted upon until recently.
“We always had an idea in the back of our heads that we wanted to take a look at what’s going on in the county,” the watchdog said, citing race-based controversies involving the former chief in Plymouth Township as an impetus. “We started thinking about it a year ago, but never started until the Plain View Project announced its findings. Then, we knew it was time to do the same kind of project here.”
For the man who contacted Plain View Project about Montgomery County, the social media review realized his hopes.
“They’re supposed to be protecting everyone in the communities they’re assigned to,” he said. “We should have a police force that everyone thinks they can contact and be treated fairly. Everyone should feel safe. If they’re openly making racist posts, it exacerbates the problems.
"Some people might really want to serve their communities, but are turned off by what they see, saying ‘I don’t want to be around people like that.’ I have no information to say that (my uncle) has ever done anything wrong because of his mindset, but if you told me he did, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised.”
Last week, the local researchers sent PhillyVoice screenshots of 132 public Facebook posts from 32 officers in 22 departments across Montgomery County.
Not all the entries they found rose to the level that saw officers in Philadelphia get disciplined or fired, including the posts by the man's uncle.
But posts from 15 officers in 10 county jurisdictions were offensive. They included:
• A Pennsylvania State Police trooper posing in blackface for his profile picture.
• An Upper Dublin officer claiming, before joining the force, that the Department of Youth and Family Services "would be a much more effective agency if they just shot and killed all the unfit parents."
• A Lower Merion officer profanely claiming the Central Park Five were guilty and that "(I) know the truth and don't be intimidated!"
• A recently retired Upper Merion officer whose posts included photos equating U.S. Rep. Ilhan Oman wearing a hijab to a baby wearing a diaper on its head, a meme claiming "Due to the rising cost of ammunition, I'm no longer able to provide a warning shot," and disparaged Muslims, African-Americans and Starbucks should they need help from police
• An Upper Moreland officer decrying those who support allowing "our government to flood our nation with Muslims."
• An Abington officer using an image of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee for his Facebook profile shot.
• And a Collegeville officer mulling "trading in his Harley (for) a Subaru and getting raped," an insensitive reference, perhaps, to a disadvantageous business deal.
“We should have a police force that everyone thinks they can contact and be treated fairly." – Relative of police officer in Montgomery County
Indeed, of the total of number of posts included in the findings, about half would not be expected to result in departmental discipline.
Two of those Facebook users were not police officers, but people who shared a name with a local officer, according to chiefs of both departments who investigated immediately upon getting a call from PhillyVoice.
Another involved an officer who'd recently retired from the force.
Several other posts were made when a current officer was in college, according to a chief who reviewed the subordinate's social media activity, finding that he hasn't posted anything questionable since joining the force.
Finally, one former officer and state legislator whose posts were cited has since moved into a non-law enforcement role in the Pennsylvania Attorney General's Office.
CHIEFS AND AGENCIES REACT TO THE POSTS
As a group, however, the police chiefs or superintendents of eight municipalities – Abington, Collegeville, Lower Merion, Pottstown, Upper Dublin, Upper Merion, Upper Moreland and West Norriton – responded quickly to a PhillyVoice request for comment – some within minutes. The Pennsylvania State Police and state Attorney General's Office were also asked to respond.
The reactions from chiefs ranged from six department's launching internal investigations to reinforcing the need for their officers to keep and eye on what they post, lest they bring negative attention to their peers. Even chiefs from several departments where officers' posts were deemed not worthy of investigation told PhillyVoice that they've been concerned about social media lately.
Several said their officers were posting without fully understanding that their words went beyond fellow officers, friends and family, and that others could access them, bringing negative attention to their departments.
The most egregious of the posts – the profile photo of a white man in blackface, apparently posted by a state trooper on Halloween 2013 – was found on the Facebook account of Justin Serratore. A Pennsylvania State Police spokesman confirmed to PhillyVoice that a trooper matching that name is assigned to the agency's Troop K in Philadelphia. According to a news release, the Folcroft, Delaware County man was sworn in by then-Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011.
"It's sad because these posts are incongruent with who these officers are, but both posts could be seen as offensive and we take that personally." – Abington Police Chief Patrick Molloy
"The matter you brought to our attention is the subject of an internal investigation and we are unable to comment further on specifics at this time," according to Ryan Tarkowski, communications director for the agency. "All employees of the Pennsylvania State Police are the living embodiment of the agency’s values and are expected to present themselves in a manner that maintains the public trust; both on duty and in their personal lives and online activities.
"Beyond the written policies and regulations, the organizational culture of the Pennsylvania State Police does not tolerate behavior that would negatively impact public trust in the department," he added. "Personnel who violate department regulations face discipline on a case-by-case basis."
Francis Wheatley, who was sworn in as chief of the Upper Dublin Police Department just two months ago, did not take issue with one of his officers who had a post flagged by the research team: a lengthy take questioning the media's use of race in two cases involving police-involved shootings.
But Wheatley was concerned with a 2010 post from someone who would become an officer less than a year later stating that "DYFS would be a much more effective agency if they just shot and killed all the unfit parents they dealt with."
"He was not on the job in 2010 with us, but again, it's a problem. It's in his social media feed. He represents us," he said of Officer Mike Ciuffetelli's post. "We have to deal with that as an agency. I find it offensive, and I can see why other people would. We will deal with this internally."
Like most of his peers, Lower Merion Police Superintendent Michael J. McGrath was aware of the Plain View Project's work in Philadelphia and seven other cities across the country, which exposed postings ranging from "poor judgment to unacceptable and offensive conduct," he said.
McGrath and his command staff reviewed a pair of posts shared in regards to this story: Gavin Goschinski's was related to the Central Park 5 case, while Paul Coletta's was a share chalking up some police-involved shootings to "a media problem, a drug problem, a mental illness problem and an entitled welfare state breeding drugs problem."
He was not pleased with what he saw.
"We agreed they needed evaluation and conducted a review of the posts for violations of our social media policy," he told PhillyVoice on Friday afternoon. "We will take appropriate action if and when necessary."
Officials in Upper Merion Township investigated the posts shared with them, and reported that the officer responsible for them had retired from the force in January.
"If he was still an active officer with the department, we would conduct an internal investigation based on these posts," said Capt. Jay Johnson, who noted his department has a social media policy in place and regularly conducts bias-based policing training for the officers.
"In light of the recent events in Philadelphia, we have already begun to have direct conversations with our officers regarding the proper and appropriate use of social media," he continued.
In the months since his retirement, the officer has consistently posted politically charged messages targeting officials like Joe Biden, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Hillary Clinton, including one implying that she would have Robert Mueller offed should he not help impeach the president.
Prior to January 18, when he was still on the force, there were some similar posts targeting the same Democratic officials, albeit with less frequency, along with one featuring a doctored Glock gun ad for an "Antifa edition" weapon. Nothing racially insensitive, or content calling into question his fitness to serve, was found on a quick search of his page.
POLICE CHIEF: 'WE SCREWED UP'
Chief S. Michael Murphy of Upper Moreland was shown a pair of posts from active officers.
In one, patrol Sgt. Larry Rubas shared a meme decrying people who "allow our government to flood our nation with Muslims, give them welfare for life (with multiple wives) and then tell us that we must not offend them 'or we will go to prison.' Islamic immigration has destroyed every country in Europe and it will destroy both Canada and the US. Are we so stupid that we'll stand by and watch this happen to our country?"
In the other, Rubas shared a post stating, "'I'm proud to be white.' I bet no one passes this on because they are scared of be (sic) called a racist."
"We treat all issues concerning conduct of our police officers very seriously," Murphy responded. "The Upper Moreland Police Department and Upper Moreland Township have initiated an investigation into this matter. Due to the ongoing investigation, I believe it would be premature to make any comments."
"We will not hesitate to use evidence of racial or other biases when it is warranted or relevant to defend the innocence of our clients." – Dean Beer, chief public defender, Montgomery County
Abington Police Chief Patrick Molloy took the posts in question directly to two officers called out by the researchers.
One, Shane Larosa, had briefly used a photo of Robert E. Lee as his profile shot in 2015.
Another, Scott Scholl, had written "grant me the serenity to kick some m*****f****** ass today and karate chop the s*** out of anyone slowing down my train of awesomeness."
In the first case, Molloy explained that Larosa is originally from Louisiana and had used the photo in relation to history during an exchange with a longtime friend. In the second instance, he noted that Scholl used those words for a status update en route to a Crossfit competition.
"It's sad because these posts are incongruent with who these officers are, but both posts could be seen as offensive and we take that personally," he said. "You could see it in Larosa's body language when I talked to him about it. He spoke about not knowing how it would feel to be a youth driving by one of those statues because of the history. He took it down immediately.
"Good people can make bad decisions and not see how their posts will be received," Molloy continued. "I've looked at the work ethic of both officers, and they are committed to fair and impartial policing. We have a culture of respect here, and the biggest thing we stress is respect for those we serve. Our social media policy is clear: we have no First Amendment right on or off duty. You could say something that causes disharmony in the community or even internally."
His officers' posts left Molloy reiterating the importance of responsible social media behavior to his diverse 93-officer force.
"Anything they post could be detrimental to the department and impact harmony with communities that have been marginalized in the past," he said, sharing a copy of the annual agreement between his department and the Willow Grove NAACP, which encourages residents to come forward with complaints. "We screwed up and have to do better. I'm going to continue to do training with examples of social media posts. We will not tolerate posts that are hateful or discriminatory based on race, sexual orientation, political affiliation, anything.
"This is a higher calling, and as professionals, we're up to the task," Molloy added. "We're not looking for sympathy here. We will look to do better, to stress emotional intelligence. This is a lesson. We have to be above that."
As for the Collegeville officer's post, Chief Barton Bucher said its author had, in fact, recently exchanged his Harley-Davidson motorcycle for a Subaru vehicle, "but I don't know what he's talking about after that."
"We do have a social media policy and I'm looking at it now," said Bucher of the post by G. Michael Shirey, a 31-year veteran of the department. "It's certainly something we're going to have a talk about when he gets back from vacation, but I don't know if it's a violation."
"I believe that police officers should be held to a higher standard than the normal citizen. I believe that integrity in policing is absolutely essential, and that the actions of one officer can affect many other officers." – Mick Markovich, Pottstown chief of police
West Norriton Police Chief Dale Mabry was provided with two posts that longtime officer and Law Enforcement Medal of Valor recipient Dale Butler, the uncle of the man who wrote the email, had allegedly shared in recent months. One stated that "poor children of every color picked cotton. Open a book and gain some knowledge." The other insulted U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters' appearance.
"I certainly found the posts disturbing," he said Friday. "Now, it is the subject of an internal personnel investigation, so I can't comment further."
Included in the findings was a post purportedly from an officer in the Pottstown Police Department, which questioned why "some people are crying and calling unconstitutional" an effort to drug test those applying for welfare.
"I don't see how this post could be viewed as offensive, or derogatory to any race, religion, ethnicity or that it condones the acceptance of violent policing," Mick Markovich, Pottstown chief of police, said on last week. "This post would not justify an internal investigation to prove it was shared by a Pottstown police officer or another (person by that same name)."
But he noted the department takes such matters seriously.
"I believe that police officers should be held to a higher standard than the normal citizen. I believe that integrity in policing is absolutely essential, and that the actions of one officer can affect many other officers," he added.
The state Attorney General's office also weighed in after Facebook posts from its director of government affairs – Mike Vereb – turned up in the investigation.
Vereb, a former member of the West Conshohocken Police Department who served as a Republican in the state House of Representatives from 2007 to 2016, called people arrested in a Kensington drug sweep "animals" and deemed U.S. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez "stupid."
Jacklin Rhoads, spokesperson for the Attorney General's Office, said the posts "do not reflect the views" of the office and "will not be tolerated by our agency."
"Our chief integrity officer became aware of these posts weeks ago and the employee was disciplined and was also instructed to remove the offensive posts," Rhoads said. "This employee is professional staff who handles government relations in our office, not a lawyer or agent, and has no involvement in investigations or charging decisions.”
Dan Diedle, president of FOP Lodge 14, which represents officers across Montgomery County, did not return a request for comment on the social media posts.
WHAT HAPPENS NOW?
Despite the chiefs' collective pro-active response to the offensive posts, several county organizations expressed concerns with the impact on community/police relationships across the county.
Dean Beer, the county's chief public defender, said the posts raise many questions about the officers' fitness for duty, and noted that his office "routinely looks at public social media posts" of those involved in arresting their clients.
“In general, any sort of public statement or posting by law enforcement personnel that displays a bias against one or more groups can absolutely call into question the impartiality of that officer in matters involving the arrest or prosecution of members of those groups," Beer said. "We will not hesitate to use evidence of racial or other biases when it is warranted or relevant to defend the innocence of our clients.
"These sorts of posts should be concerning to the townships that oversee these police departments, as they risk losing the faith and confidence of the very people they are sworn to protect if they do not address this issue head-on.”
Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele also expressed concern about the nature of the posts, saying he hoped that each agency would address the issue from within.
“The entire law enforcement community is sworn to protect and serve every resident of Montgomery County — not ‘some residents,’ not ‘only certain groups,'" he said on Monday afternoon. "We are here to protect and serve every resident and to see that justice is done without consideration to a person’s race, color, sex, religious creed, sexual orientation, age, national origin, ancestry, handicap or disability.
"Any type of discrimination is not tolerated in Montgomery County," he added. "We expect that each police department will handle any offensive post according to their own policies and procedures."
For Baker-White, whose Plain View Project was the impetus for the local investigation, the reactions are welcomed.
“I’m glad people want to take a look at this elsewhere, that it’s being taken seriously," she told PhillyVoice. "This is a systemic issue.”