Just days before Christmas, NYPD officers raided a home in the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn with a warrant. The family inside of the house was immediately handcuffed while the officers searched for a suspect. After three hours, the family was let go, no charges filed, and no arrests. The ordeal, while disturbing, is actually quite commonplace. There are over 20,000 no-knock raids in America every year, and it isn’t rare for police to have the wrong house.
What makes this story unique, however, is that the officers involved posted a photo of the family, handcuffed in their living room, on the social messaging app Snapchat. One caption read: “Merry Christmas Its NYPD!” A second Snap said “Warrant Sweeps Its still a party smh.”
According to an early report on ABC News 7, the photo appeared on the “New York Story” channel on Snapchat’s Discover platform, making it widely available to the service’s users, although a representative for the company denied the claim in a statement to the New York Daily News. 28-year-old Kimberly Santiago, who was at the house when it was raided told ABC News 7, “If he did that to [us], picture how many other families he's done that to.”
A leaked document stipulating the NYPD’s rules for officers regarding social media makes it clear that this kind of behavior is a direct violation of internal policy:
Members of the service are prohibited from posting on the internet nonpublic items (e.g., witness statements, crime scene photographs, videos, etc.) that were gained as a result of their position with the Department.
But that’s hardly prevented officers from taking liberties while on duty. Indeed, police departments around the country have adopted social media for all sorts of purposes, often with an intent to embarrass suspects. Several NYPD precincts are notorious on Twitter for sharing celebratory posts about drug busts. In one particularly bizarre post, a smiling officer is pictured with a perp’s stash of weed, while the caption reads:
“Carrying your #marijuana stash where the sun don't shine won't keep Officer Febres from finding it. That's dedication. #itswhatwedo.”
On Facebook, police officers have been known to post their opinions of black people, women, and the victims of police violence. Cops in East Liverpool, Ohio, gained notoriety for publicly shaming heroin addicts.
“Merry Christmas Its NYPD!”
While the officer involved in this latest incident has been suspended — and many controversial posts on social media result in some form of discipline for police officers — the message conveyed in these posts is instructive. On social media, the worldview of American police is on full display. And while we still have very few tools to actually track police conduct, what police officers post on Twitter or Facebook can be a reflection of how they behave on the job.
To post an image of a family in handcuffs on your Snapchat requires, at the very least, that you see that family as less deserving of privacy or protection. A willingness to humiliate an entire group of people, whether guilty of a crime or not — and let’s remember, in this case, not at all — suggests a bankrupt sense of empathy at best, and a harmful intent at worst.
Social media is a convenient, very public tool for the police to frame a narrative that supports their worldview. The virality of “dumb criminal” content, or footage of suspects behaving in extreme circumstances, serves, intentionally or not, to counter the increasing amount of footage available of cops behaving abhorrently.
Two weeks after the death of Eric Garner at the hands of New York police, the NYPD released an intense video from Garner’s neighborhood. In it, a pair of would-be rappers filming a music video at a local bodega shoot each other over an argument about who should star in the video. The dramatic (and very grainy) footage was released under the notion that the police needed help finding the shooter. An added bonus, of course, was that it fit conspicuously into the official counter-narrative around Eric Garner’s death, that “these communities” are dangerous and police have no choice but to use deadly force.
In Fort Worth, on the same day as the NYPD’s Snapchat fiasco, police responded to a call from a mother, who is black, claiming that her neighbor assaulted her son. In a video on Facebook, the officer is seen, bafflingly, arresting the woman who called the police. The situation allegedly started because the woman’s 7-year-old son dropped a piece of litter and was then grabbed and choked by a grown man. In the video, the officer can be heard saying, “Why don’t you teach your son not to litter?” The woman responds, “But it doesn’t matter if he did or didn’t, it doesn’t give him the right to put his hands on him.” The officer’s reply, before arresting the woman was “Why not?”
Why not? A police officer should know the answer to that question.