Boys in blue
Copstagram: Inside law enforcement's terrifying social media bubble
Thanks to poor oversight of social media networks, the police are living in a horrifying parallel reality.
When we look back at 2020, we’re going to have to come up with a term for the collective explosion of rage against the state that we saw this summer.
We’ve had the Winter of Discontent in the UK and the Arab Spring throughout the Middle East and North Africa, so maybe we’ll look back at 2020 as the year of the ACAB Summer — that is, if we survive this pandemic.
In May, after months of us all staying inside as the government left many to die poor, then police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. Then Minneapolis PD claimed Floyd was “experiencing medical distress.” A cellphone video eventually proved that the distress he was experiencing was caused by Chauvin choking him and, across the country, millions of people went outside for the first time in months to scream at the police. The police responded to protests about excessive violence with, you’ve guessed it, excessive violence.
On June 27, San Diego police officers Jonathon Lucas and Tevar Zaki spotted a man with distinctive facial tattoos who they said resembled a robbery suspect they were looking for. Minutes later, the man, Leonardo Ibarra, was shot 11 times.
That night, outside a family health center that provides medical services to low-income San Diegans, protesters angrily gathered at the taped-off scene. The crowd was tense and angry; someone smashed a car mirror and ran off, someone read out the names of cops convicted of sexually assaulting citizens or abusing their spouses, someone shouted that protesters should shoot back at the police. I remember someone giving me a bottle of baking soda and water in case we got tear-gassed again. The public's anger was still raw from the last weekend in May, when police had fired less lethal weapons at protesters, journalists, and anyone else they could see from the rooftops of the city buildings on the waterfront.
The police responded to protests about excessive violence with, you’ve guessed it, excessive violence.
The day after the shooting, protesters marched around chanting Ibarra’s name and, like crowds all across the country, chanted for the police to be defunded, fired, or to quit their jobs. Fast forward to 2021 and, for the most part, that hasn’t happened. San Diego police issued a video the next day that suggested Ibarra had pulled a revolver from his pants before the police opened fire. The cops also included a photo of said revolver.
Ibarra died the next day. Soon, a memorial had popped up — a few candles, a sign, and some dedications to his three kids. But aside from the reminder that someone’s life had just violently ended between the WeWork building and the medical clinic, San Diego moved on.
Jonathon Lucas, apparently, did not. The officer took to Instagram to post a picture of the memorial alongside eight “crying tears of laughter” emojis and three “crying floods of tears” emojis and the hashtag #eastside. Lucas’ handle, “Paw Patrollin,” billed itself as a chronicle of his weight loss and a promotion of “a healthier lifestyle for cops.” It’s one of many poorly disguised police accounts that talk publicly about policing as if, paradoxically, nobody's watching. Since the post, Lucas has been suspended without pay and stripped of his police powers but, despite paying a consultancy firm $4,000 a month to improve its image online, San Diego PD has not seen the last of its officers' rogue social media. Cops have spent the last year posting their way into public outrage, sometimes even from official accounts, like brainless tweets in broken Spanish.
On June 2, after officers had fired tear gas, pepper balls, and bean bag rounds into crowds indiscriminately and deliberately targeted members of the press, the social media team began harassing protesters who shared photos of the incidents. One account, which had shared several images of San Diego Police officers not displaying names or badge numbers, received a DM from the San Diego Police's official account saying “Nice try. After the four times that the unlawful assembly order was given perhaps you and they should have left. Like everyone else.” The owner of the account replied, requesting the officer’s name and badge number. The SDPD account went quiet.
In early December, police officers began circulating a subtitled video from the film Downfall. You’ve probably seen a version of this popular meme. However, unlike the many amusing versions that have made their way around the internet, this one leaves the viewer wondering if the author actually identifies with the Nazis in the film. The video describes an incident in which SDPD officers were photographed drinking coffee inside a café without masks — in violation of the stay-at-home order that was in place at the time. It goes on to describe people upset by the police’s disregard for COVID guidelines as “Karens and Soy Boys” and calls San Diego’s newly elected gay, Indigenous mayor, Todd Gloria, “Todd glory hole.”
Aside from the interesting revelation that the cops seem to think that "Karen" has a definition other than "the only people left who like the police," the video also provided an insight into internal divisions at SDPD and the normalizing of the bigoted and derogatory language embraced by the alt-right. When the video was widely condemned by SDPD leadership and the public, the account that posted it resorted to textbook alt-right defenses, twice attempting to redefine the term “glory hole” and posting about their gay and non-white friends. The subtitles of the video also described “moral” [sic] being at an “all-time low” and suggested that repeated internal affairs investigations had left the beat cops feeling like they were battling a leadership “hammering the officers for every minor incident” and having to deal with what the video calls “the public’s bullshit.”
This peek behind the thin blue line suggests that increased focus on police accountability is causing disorder in police departments. An account named “savage San Diego” claims to have created the SDPD's notorious Downfall meme. The account is one of at least two run by Giorgio Kyrlio, who rose to prominence in 2019 when he testified that accusations of war crimes against Eddie Gallagher, who was a Navy SEAL at the time, were “lies.”
However, the Downfall video does not actually appear on either of Kyrlio’s pages and seems to have been circulated by an anonymous meme page titled “disgruntled PO3,” which has been gaining followers steadily since the video surfaced and which follows and interacts with Kyrlio’s “Savage San Diego” page. This page shares memes about San Diego Police leadership and how they have alienated their rank-and-file cops, complains about the mayor’s salary, and rage posts about Internal Affairs investigations. (It seems that even cops don’t like cops.)
Cops from New York to Washington State follow the account, which revels in mocking the mayor of San Diego and falsely accuses him of increasing his own salary. (In fact, the mayoral salary increase was approved by 78 percent of voters two years ago before Gloria ran for office, unlike police salaries, which, until last year, were higher than the mayor for whom they worked and were doubled by overtime during police riots.) Police leadership is so far unable to find the officer responsible for the account. Since the video began circulating, the page has gained over 600 followers.
Input requested Lucas’ social media posts, as well as those of officers linked to accounts who liked, shared, or commented on the Downfall video. These accounts are public record. The San Diego Police Department claimed they did not have records of any such posts, yet Lucas was suspended for posts during this time period, suggesting SDPD did have records of his posting. SDPD refused to release officer Lucas’ disciplinary record — which is also public record. After Input’s researcher pointed to the shooting of Ibarra, which is exactly the type of record that can be disclosed, SDPD conceded that these records did exist but asked for more time to find them. SDPD also claimed they had no records of Chief Nisleit sending emails with Lucas’ name or badge number during the disciplinary process.
We also filed a records request for all the Instagram DMs sent on June 2 from the SDPD account. After the 10-day maximum, SDPD filed for a 14-day extension. This is within their legal rights, but the records request filed explained in detail how to locate the DMs, a task that would have taken less than five minutes even for a new Instagram user. SDPD was aware of the publication date of this article, and seem to have chosen to drag their feet rather than comply with either request. This is in sharp contrast to the speed with which they released videos of Ibarra’s shooting.
Input also requested that SDPD confirm or deny that the account “Dnizzy1” on Twitter, which uses the name and the location of San Diego’s police chief, in fact belongs to the chief. They said it does not. We requested the name of the officer who harassed protesters on June 2 as well as information on the officer attempting to tweet in Spanish (SDPD officially does not tweet in Spanish but does have Spanish language posts on Facebook, according to a spokesman). SDPD is currently investigating both.
The records request filed explained in detail how to locate the DMs, a task that would have taken less than five minutes even for a new Instagram user.
While the Instagram videos suggest officers and leadership are divided, it is clear that this lack of accountability and transparency is an issue that goes to the top of the department and that the feeling that “dealing with the public’s bullshit” is an unnecessary burden is shared department-wide.
SDPD spokesman Shawn Takeuchi told Input, “We do not know if this video was made by someone in the department or by someone who does not work for SDPD. If we are able to determine the video was created by a current department member, that person will be the subject of the investigation and may face discipline if the department’s policy and procedures were violated.” According to the SDPD procedures on media relations, this video does seem to be a very clear violation of procedure, specifically the paragraph that reads: “Negative comments on the internal operations of the Department, or specific conduct of supervisors or peers that impacts the public perception of the Department is not protected First Amendment speech.” Takeuchi added that the opinion expressed on morale “is that of the creator and only that person.”
San Diego cops aren’t the only ones talking on social media like nobody is listening, Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco used his official page to share pictures of a “Hillary for Prison” banner and call his constituents “stupid sheep.” One popular account, “dark cop memes'' has 23,000 followers who enjoy posts about how brutality was easier before body cameras, and others about burning down houses.
One officer, took to AR15.com to talk about the kind of “enemy” people might encounter on the streets and how the police “hunt them down” and kidnap people’s mothers to get them to turn themselves in. He then goes on to give some terrible — and probably illegal — advice for concealed carry permit holders, including “If it comes to pass you are forced to shoot someone do not feel bad. When the police come just tell them a guy threatened you with deadly force and you were forced to fire. I know there are bad police out there in some parts of the country who don't support self-defense. I can't help you with that.” [sic]
On the boards of Officer.com, you can find The Oceanside Chronicles, six seasons of cop fiction written by cops, presumably for cops, and also mostly about cops. (They even get to vote on the plot.) But when officers are not discussing whether characters like Max and JP should get engaged, they discuss how COVID restrictions won’t be enforced, say bad things about each other’s moms, indulge in the old “the Democratic party was the party of the KKK and is therefore still the racist party” fallacy, and talk about how the media overhypes racism and COVID-19.
Of course, there are plenty of the sorts of discussions you’d expect as well: on equipment, best practices, advice to give to concerned citizens, and how having children impacts beat cops. None of this is illegal, but some of it does show a lack of judgment to have these discussions — many of which show a very clear bias — on open forums. Especially at a time when large parts of the country are in open, and sometimes armed, conflict with the police.
It’s probably not a surprise to see that police all over the country feel as if they are immune from the law. We had a whole summer of protest about it. They had a whole summer of discharging riot munitions at people about it. It’s not shocking to see that individuals on the right continue to talk about other people as if they are not people; Donald Trump has done it for at least the last four years and 70 million people voted for him. But it is another reminder that the police, even after cities burned because of it, continue to see themselves as separate from, and better than, the people they serve.