PITTSBURGH (AP) — In a private Facebook group called the Pittsburgh Area Police Breakroom, many current and retired officers spent the year criticizing chiefs who took a knee or officers who marched with Black Lives Matter protesters, whom they called “terrorists” or “thugs.” They made transphobic posts and bullied members who supported anti-police brutality protesters or Joe Biden in a forum billed as a place officers can “decompress, rant, share ideas.”
Many of the deluge of daily posts were jokes about the hardships of being officers, memorials to deceased colleagues or conversations about training and equipment. But over the group’s almost 4-year existence, a few dozen members became more vocal with posts that shifted toward pro-Donald Trump memes and harsh criticism of anyone perceived to support so-called “demoncrats,” Black Lives Matter or coronavirus safety measures.
In June, Tim Huschak, a corporal at the Borough of Lincoln Police Department, posted a screenshot of an Allegheny County 911 dispatcher’s Facebook page indicating that the phrase “Blue Lives Matter” used by law enforcement supporters is not equivalent to the slogan “Black Lives Matter” because policing is a choice, not a fact of birth. He wrote: “Many negative posts on police. And we should trust her with our lives???”
Some angry members rallied quickly and organized phone calls to her supervisor demanding she be fired.
“Multiple officers should call and report it. Remember NO JUSTICE NO PEACE LOL,” West Mifflin Borough Police Department officer Tommy Trieu responded under his Facebook name, Tommy Bear.
Trieu was one of two West Mifflin officers seen in a video last year restraining a 15-year-old Black girl after responding to a call about a fight on a school bus. Activists called for firing the officers, but borough officials said the recording started after a student hit an officer and that they “did nothing wrong.”
A few members of the group also were bullied or left the page, including an officer who said the Fraternal Order of Police’s Trump endorsement did not represent her and a Black officer who was accused of creating a fake Facebook account to complain about the lack of diversity in local departments.
The Associated Press was able to view posts and comments from the group, which has 2,200 members, including about a dozen current and former police chiefs -- from mainly Allegheny County and some surrounding areas stretching into Ohio -- and at least one judge and one councilman. After the AP began asking about posts last week, the group appeared to have been deleted or suspended from view.
Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said Monday that the group was removed “for violating our policies” before the AP published its story, but could not say whether it came after a complaint or as part of routine monitoring. Last year, Facebook released an update to its community standards: “People turn to Facebook Groups to connect with others who share their interests, but even if they decide to make a group private, they have to play by the same rules as everyone else.”
Contacted by the AP, Lincoln Borough Police Chief Richard Bosco said departmental policy prohibited Huschak from talking to the media. He said the officer wasn’t aware that others had posted insults under his post or that things had “gotten out of hand.”
“There is and there needs to be a higher professional standard for police, especially when it comes to social media,” Bosco said.
Trieu defended his comment, telling the AP that he was merely advising fellow officers that they could file a grievance with a dispatcher’s supervisor if they feared for their safety.
Concerns about explicit bias on officers’ social media accounts were renewed after a summer of protests demanding an end to racial injustice in policing and the violent U.S. Capitol siege in January.
The private Facebook page showed embattled officers hostile to criticism, with many entries possibly violating some department social media policies that prohibit disparaging comments about race or harassing others.
Joe Hoffman, a West Mifflin Borough Police officer, denounced Webster, Mass., Police Chief Michael Shaw, who lay on his stomach on his station’s steps for about eight minutes -- a reference to George Floyd dying after being held on the ground by Minneapolis police.
“If you are a law enforcement officer and you kneel or lie on the ground so easily over the false narrative of police brutality, you will one day be executed on your knees or your stomach without a fight by the same criminals that you are currently pandering to,” he wrote, calling the organization “Black Lies Matter.”
Hoffman did not return two requests for comment.
Mount Pleasant Township Police Chief Lou McQuillan, who is running for a vacant magisterial district judge post, was listed as one of the Facebook group’s four administrators.
McQuillan posted an article in June 2017 about a civil settlement reached in the police shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, remarking on how the amount of the award was determined: “future earnings? lol. What about Ofc Wilson? What about his lost earnings? Joke.” Several officers replied that Brown’s earnings would have derived from crimes or welfare checks.
In response to the AP, McQuillan said: “Of course, I regret the loss of any life. My comments and posts from four years ago were meant to support law enforcement and police officers everywhere.”
Dozens of group members fueled days of transphobic posts about former Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine for her role in statewide social-distancing mandates to stop the spread of COVID-19. Levine, who is transgender, has since been tapped by Biden to be assistant health secretary. “Someone needs to shoot this thing!!” one retired officer wrote.
The Pittsburgh police department has revised its social media policy to emphasize that officers may face discipline for online comments, especially those undermining public trust in the force. Some of the smaller police departments contacted by the AP either did not have policies or had policies less specific about offenses.
Pittsburgh’s new policy explicitly states officers may face disciplinary action for sharing “any content involving discourteous or disrespectful remarks … pertaining to issues of ethnicity, race, religion, gender, gender identity/expression, sexual orientation, and/or disability.” It also says officers are forbidden from “advocating harassment or violence.”
Beaty reported from New York.