As a young cop in Richmond, Calif., in 2008, Ben Murdoch made a mistake that cost him his career and led some to label him a racist.
At a Halloween party, a Latino friend came dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit meant to be a costume of a pop culture character created by comedian Dave Chappelle — Clayton Bigsby, a blind Black man who is also a white supremacist. Murdoch, dressed as a rock star, and the friend began spoofing the Bigsby skit, he said, including giving a Nazi salute.
A picture was taken and posted on social media. Local news picked it up, and two days short of finishing his probationary period, Murdoch said, he was pressured to resign and has not worked in law enforcement since.
“At the time you think it’s hilarious, and you don’t think about what you are doing,” Murdoch said recently. “Think twice with all your decisions.”
Social media were in their infancy when they helped end Murdoch’s career. Now, they are so widely used by police and retired officers — and so closely watched by their detractors — that their worst moments are casting a harsh spotlight on the mindset of law enforcement, and serving as proof to some that cops are inherently biased.
Plumas County Sheriff’s Deputy Ed Obayashi, who has developed the state’s first training course for officers on personal social media and has investigated multiple instances of online misconduct, said offending officers are often surprised by the uproar.
“When I do these investigations, I get these excuses all the time, ‘No, I’m not racist, it’s funny,'” Obayashi said. “There is no excuse. There is no justification. What circumstances can you come up with to justify such postings? There aren’t any, and that’s why chiefs and sheriffs are tearing their hair out.”
In recent months in California, one sheriff’s deputy was fired and a deputy at a different department disciplined for posting a meme of a Black male porn star with his knee on George Floyd’s neck; a law enforcement union for prison guards has come under fire for an online video where a Black legislator’s face was covered by a bull’s-eye; and a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department captain was reassigned after a Facebook post that said Andres Guardado, a Salvadoran American killed by a deputy in Gardena, “chose his fate.”
In San Jose, four officers were implicated in an ongoing investigation for participating in a private Facebook forum that included racist and anti-Muslim content. At the California Highway Patrol last summer, a chief was investigated after a forwarded post disparaging transgender celebrity Caitlyn Jenner was brought to the department’s attention by a reporter.
Amid the George Floyd demonstrations, Los Angeles Police Protective League board member Jamie McBride came under scrutiny for posting Facebook messages supportive of former LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates, who ran a department plagued by excessive force. Also under scrutiny is McBride’s daughter, Toni McBride, an LAPD officer who in April shot and killed a man carrying a box cutter, provoking community protests. Multiple stylish videos and pictures of her blasting away at targets at a gun range can be found online, including one posted in recent days.
Police officers have free speech rights, and across California and the United States, departments are grappling with how to balance those protections with the potential for commentary that can trigger explosive responses, putting the profession further on the defensive.
The words and images have sometimes included serious misconduct, such as violent threats, misogyny and racism. Officers have also found themselves facing public scrutiny and department ire for political messages that crossed lines, comments on high-profile and contentious cases and vulgar images that offend average sensibilities.
“It’s bigger than insensitivity,” said Melina Abdullah, co-founder of Black Lives Matter Los Angeles. “It’s a doubling down on the threat to Black lives, and it is absolutely additional violence.”
Multiple law enforcement leaders across the state said the public nature of social media misconduct makes it one of the most urgent disciplinary matters when it happens, often necessitating action quicker than for other types of misconduct that may be more serious, but draw less attention.
“One post can become a movement,” said Wally Hebeish, assistant chief of police in Long Beach. A probationary officer was recently fired in his department for posting a photo of his baton over a bloody sidewalk during protests for police reform.
While Hebeish said it was “a young officer that made a mistake,” it was not one the department could tolerate both because it hurt internal morale and caused anger in a community that was in the midst of upheaval.
“We weren’t looking for people to become angry with us, but that’s the type of emotion that image can create,” Hebeish said.
Sekou Millington, chief of police in the San Francisco Bay Area city of Tracy, said the effects of a social media incident are long-lasting, making it imperative that departments respond quickly and in a way that mirrors community sentiment. A part-time professional standards officer in his department, responsible for administrative investigations, was recently fired for participating in an online forum where a journalist’s life was allegedly threatened. The incident has sparked an FBI investigation.
“Now we have to work that much harder to build that trust back,” Millington said. “It’s definitely 10 steps back.”
But legally, there is a limit to restrictions law enforcement agencies can place on their employees when it comes to free speech — though a 2018 ruling by a California appellate court involving a LAPD officer clarified that posts causing “potential disruptiveness” to an agency’s operation could warrant discipline.
Departments know “full well they couldn’t prohibit [officers] from posting based on the Constitution,” said Mike Rains, a lawyer who has represented multiple officers in social media cases.
But even law enforcement unions, charged with defending on-duty misconduct for their members, have backed away from supporting those who post offensive material.
In San Jose, a fight has broken out within the police union over the perception that the union head did not defend officers in the recent scandal. A similar union dust-up is happening in the ranks of state prison guards, with the supervisors’ union condemning the bullseye video from the rank-and-file union.
Art Gonzales, current president of the supervisors’ organization said in a statement he was “appalled at the video” and considered it harassing and threatening a public official.
“This is inciteful and borders on a racist call-to-action,” he said.
Faced with the waterfall of bad judgment and no way to stop it, departments have crafted stricter policies for personal use of social media, though much remains as suggestions instead of dictates, and departments are often playing catch-up. At the California Highway Patrol, an August memo to management, laying out an update to its 2013 social media policy, warns “to treat every post as if it will end up on the front page of a major newspaper, because it may.”
But Obayashi said the desire among officers to participate in social media remains strong, and is more than “just stupidity.” Though, like Rains, he counsels officers to “just stay off,” he has seen the impulse to post grow stronger in recent years as political discourse has turned more vitriolic.
“I’ve even had one officer say, ‘If Trump can say this, why can’t I?'” Obayashi said. “A lot of cops are frustrated, they are very frustrated because of everything that has been transpiring: Black Lives Matter, defund the police, arrest those officers, a perception that leadership and politicians have abandoned them. So they don’t have an outlet. This is their outlet.”
Rains, the lawyer for police officers and unions, said some officers also feel a need to defend themselves and the profession.
“You don’t let the narrative eat you alive,” Rains said of how some officers justify social media. “When the narrative is something you care strongly about, you shouldn’t be quiet. That is being a coward.”
Some officers said that social media provide a connection in a profession that is often insular and isolating. Retired San Jose Officer Leroy Pyle was active nearly daily on the Facebook page that recently led to the investigation of officers in his former department, but said he never saw offensive content. Instead, he viewed it as “an everyday thing where people could share news … what was going on in their life, who died, who had babies. It was a chat room.”
Though he thought the flagged content was “not acceptable,” he has moved discussion to a private webpage to keep it alive. The members-only space, he said, is a refuge.
“It’s not to encourage that kind of stuff, but if somebody does make a mistake or errors … the whole world doesn’t have to know,” he said.
Age also plays a part, said Hebeish, Millington and others. For younger officers, digital natives, “everything they do is virtual,” said Millington, making it “hard to say, ‘Don’t use it.'”
Murdoch, the officer caught making the Nazi salute, said twelve years after his resignation, he has reinvented his life and is “an old man, married, settled down,” who rescues dogs and tortoises. But the incident still lingers.
“I actually try to avoid all photos at any time these days,” he said. “I don’t want to be seen on anything, anywhere.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.