Police departments throughout the United States have escalated the vigilance in which they monitor speech on social media. Multiple people have been arrested and accused of threatening officers, as part of a law enforcement response to the execution of two New York Police Department officers.
Ismaiiyl Brinsley shot NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on December 20. Just prior to the murders, he <a href=”<a href=”http://money.cnn.com/2014/12/22/technology/instagram-nypd-brinsley/”>posted</a> on Instagram, “I’m putting wings on pigs today…they take one of ours, let’s take two of theirs.”
CNN Money <a href=”http://money.cnn.com/2014/12/22/technology/instagram-nypd-brinsley/”>reported</a>, “Law enforcement is currently combing through Brinsley’s social media posts, and actively investigating some who posted responses to his posts, according to sources from the New York Police Department.”
Other police departments are “combing through” social media as well and criminalizing speech that, at most, is extremely inflammatory.
On December 23, a twenty-nine year-old man in Tinton Falls, New Jersey, was <a href=” http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/12/23/social-media-police-threat-nj/20833799/”>arrested</a> by police for posting, “Don’t wanna get clipped while sitting in your squad car?? Don’t be a (expletives deleted) pig who’s looking to get killed…Everyone who goes out of their way to (expletive deleted) with other people should get executed in cold blood.”
The <a href=”http://www.news9.com/story/27699465/oklahoma-city-police-arrest-man-for-making-online-threats”>same day</a> Oklahoma City police arrested a black 19-year-old named Tavon Railback for posting a photo of himself holding a semi-automatic pistol. The photo reportedly included a caption with a “series of graphics, symbols, or ‘emojis’ that police say translate into, ‘Bust some shots at a cop, and watch his body fall, Bang Bang.’”
Railback knew he was being monitored prior to his arrest and posted to his Facebook page that the “laws reading messages.”
David W. Ragnone, a white 28-year-old, in Portage, Indiana, <a href=”www.nwitimes.com/news/local/porter/man-sought-by-police-after-posts-to-social-media-turns/article_7fd7b7c3-4c26-55d4-8a9c-98165ab096c4.html”>turned himself</a> in on Tuesday night. He was wanted on “felony burglary and midemeanor invasion of privacy charges.”
According to a press release from Portage Police Chief Troy Williams, “Mr. Ragnone made a post on his Facebook page Sunday night Dec. 21 that referenced ‘every cop getting killed puts a smile on his face’ and ‘when will some of the Portage Police meet the same fate as these other officers, they are by far the most corrupt police station ever.”
“At least a dozen residents reported the post to police.” The police chief acknowledged these threats were not directed at any “particular officer” yet maintained they were “very disturbing given the recent unprovoked attacks on law enforcement.”
Port Authority Police <a href=”http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/nyc-crime/vt-man-believed-planning-suicide-busted-article-1.2054338″>arrested</a> twenty-nine year-old Padraic Scanlon of Vermont at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York on Tuesday. He allegedly made threats on social media that suggested he was going to engage in “suicide by cop.” The police received a tip from police in Springfield, Vermont, and tracked Scanlon to the Midtown terminal by monitoring the location of his cell phone.
Scanlon had no weapons on him when he was arrested when he arrived to the terminal and got off a Greyhound Bus. He had drugs on him and was charged with “two counts of criminal possession of a controlled substance and unlawful possession of marijuana.”
A twenty-seven year-old Chicopee man in Massachusetts <a href=”http://www.cbs3springfield.com/story/27688353/chicopee-man-to-be-charged-for-threatening-police”>faced charges</a> after he posted “Put Wings on Pigs” on his Facebook page on Monday. Local residents alerted the Chicopee police to this “very disturbing post” by Charles DiRosa. He was not immediately arrested but a criminal complaint was drawn up against him. He will be summoned to court for “threatening to commit a crime.”
Also, on Monday, the NYPD <a href=”http://www.buzzfeed.com/tomnamako/mayor-bill-de-blasio-has-lost-trust-of-some-nypd-officers-co?utm_term=.qb4XG63ol0&sub=3554482_4544737#.kjggB13rA”>arrested</a> 18-year-old Devon Coley of Brooklyn. They claimed he was a “known member of a local gang called Addicted to Cash” and charged him with “making terroristic threats” after he posted an anti-police cartoon titled “73Next.”
The 73rd Precinct, which includes Brownsville, interpreted this posting as a threat. The cartoon was of a man, a police officer and a gun that was pointed at the officer. (BuzzFeed News could not view the post because of Coley’s privacy settings, which raises questions about the dragnet surveillance of social media the NYPD has been engaged in and to what extent it violates citizens’ privacy.)<!–more–>
Houston police officers also mentioned that they were monitoring postings on Facebook like, “2 down. 49,000 to go. Not an execution, just a minor insurrection and a bit of humble revenge.” They are monitoring speech because “the thug who killed the 2 New York Police Officers posted something on a social media website,” according to Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officer’s Union.
But none of these postings appear to be what one would call “<a href=”https://www.aclu.org/content/aclu-confronts-tough-first-amendment-issues-oregon-abortion-threats-case”>true threats</a>,” which means that the threat explicitly targets a person who would be afraid of the threat and the person engaged in the speech intended to make that individual afraid.
The individuals are expressing their extreme and inflammatory belief that police officers should be shot in revenge for other police, who have killed unarmed black men. This expression of anger, while it may be crude, probably should not be criminalized because it infringes upon the First Amendment.
For example, countless zealots freely share their view that doctors who perform abortions should be murdered yet they are not arrested unless there are specific details in their inflammatory statements that would lead one to be concerned about the wellbeing of specific people.
Additionally, what makes the increase in police attention to social media more problematic is the fact that the NYPD is using dragnet surveillance of social media <a href=”http://www.theverge.com/2014/12/10/7341077/nypd-harlem-crews-social-media-rikers-prison”>to map what they believe</a> are gang territories and rivalries. They then are launching raids to arrest a large group of individuals suspected of gang affiliations. Facebook evidence is forming the basis for bringing conspiracy charges, which the police contend will deter violence. The NYPD appears to be engaged in the same practice since Brinsley killed the two cops.
It is unclear to what extent New York residents’ privacy and freedom of speech are being violated. Numerous activists engaged in anti-cop rhetoric are likely being considered suspects. Depending on how militant they are, regardless of whether they have actually issued a threat, they are likely on some list of suspects being monitored.
Extreme speech against police, however, is not being posted to social media in a vacuum.
According to <a href=”http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/2014/12/23/chicopee-police-respond-alleged-anti-police-social-media-threat/q8noxaEgfyFAXitKthhZKL/story.html”>Boston.com</a>, “Police Commissioner William Evans recently announced that Boston police are on alert in response to ‘anger and rhetoric being thrown around’ against police officers. That anger has stemmed from the recent lack of indictments for police-involved deaths on Staten Island, New York, and in Ferguson, Missouri. Those events have also fueled nation-wide protests over the past few weeks.”
That is just what many of these messages are: the product of anger at a system that allows police to shoot and kill suspects without facing any punishment whatsoever.
A white police officer in a St. Louis suburb <a href=”http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/berkeley-officer-kills-suspect-who-pulled-gun-police-say-victim/article_d45db16a-7422-5307-b81d-b45dbdc896ba.html”>killed</a> another black teenager last night. The teenager, Antonio Martin, may or may not have been armed. Protests erupted in reaction and police used force to disperse the crowd.
In Houston, another grand jury <a href=”http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/24/us/texas-officer-cleared-in-fatal-shooting.html?ref=us&_r=0″>cleared</a> a police officer and refused to indict Juventino Castro for shooting and killing twenty-six year-old Jordan Baker.
Baker had been unarmed and was killed on January 16 by Castro while he was working his security job at a strip mall.
In the past months, three other grand juries empaneled have refused to indict police officers for killings (Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Dontre Hamilton).
It is in this national context that people are choosing to express their extreme opinions about what should be done to police without consideration for how provocative and offensive their words might be. The words are at least as provocative and offensive as people who talk about shooting and killing “rioters” and protesters.
Not only does criminalizing expressions of anger that lack specific threats undermine the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, but it also risks intensifying conflict in communities when people, who are just venting and have no intention of committing a crime, are arrested and jailed.
*Creative Commons Licensed Photo by Ed Yourdon
**Credit to journalist Raven Rakia for highlighting the multiple arrests for social media postings that took place in the past two days. Follow her work here.