By Charlie Deitch
Pittsburgh Current Editor
After the Pittsburgh Current ran a story on Friday, August 20 about a Pittsburgh Police Sergeant posting racist and false propaganda on his personal Facebook page, the city announced later that evening that the matter was being investigated and the officer had been put on paid administrative leave.
George Kristoff, who was promoted to the rank of sergeant in January 2015, has since made his Facebook private but his identity was verified by other personal posts on the page. But screenshots from the page were saved by a Morningside resident who discovered them last week and shared with the Pittsburgh Current. All of the information shared on Kristoff’s page appeared to be reshares of memes and other posts.
One post reads: “If you don’t want to get hit by a car, don’t protest in the middle of a highway. If you don’t want to be killed by police, don’t engage in illegal activities. If you’re scared of the coronavirus, stay home. If you don’t love America, leave it. It’s really not that difficult.
Another shows a photo of two Black children holding handguns. The caption underneath reads: “And they wonder why their kids are getting shot.”
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” says resident Jen Cielslak. “This is a cop who works in Zone 5 and has been deployed for the recent protests. Over 30 of his posts were flagged by Facebook as fake news. I worry about a police officer who spreads this kind of thing.”
Cieslak and anyone else who might have to deal with Kristoff has reason to worry. Just by the examples listed above, Kristoff, whose zone includes some predominantly black neighborhoods, thinks a protester on a roadway deserves to get hit by a car; a person “engaged in illegal activities” deserves to be killed by police; and black kids being killed, shot and murdered is the fault of simply being born black.
But the worry shouldn’t just be about the post of just one police officer. Because for every racist post, it’s safe to assume that other police officers saw them and did nothing. Maybe they even reposted it or left a like. That could turn a situation of the alleged “one bad apple” in a tree rotting at its roots.
“Anytime you have an officer who is employed by the city, and his job and the rest of the department’s job is to ensure the health safety and general welfare of the community, make clearly racially insensitive and racist remarks, it doesn’t just call into question one officer but the entire police apparatus,” says Jerry Dickinson, the Pitt constitutional law professor who made an unsuccessful run for Congress earlier this year. “They always tell us that it’s ‘one bad apple,’ but it’s not. The foundation of structural racism is insidious and it must be dismantled from the bottom up. Putting one officer on paid leave isn’t going to fix this problem.
“We need an investigation of law enforcement across the board. Going on a case by case approach won’t make progress on these issues. There must be a much larger investigation of this behavior and law enforcement practices as a whole.
So far, officials haven’t said what form an investigation would take. But, the incidents of police officers making and sharing racist posts has skyrocketed in recent years. Two prominent efforts emerged last year that discovered thousands of social media posts from current and former police officers that included racist, misogynistic, islamophobic, and anti-government posts. The first, the PlainView Project discovered scores of officers making these types of posts. The other, Reveal, is a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Among its findings were hundreds of officers who belong to and post in groups that promote ideas that are racist and support other forms of hate. And while it was certainly challenging to find the posts, the real struggle came with getting departments to act. In a September followup story, Reveal noted, “We sought reaction from more than 150 law enforcement departments about their officers’ involvement in these extremist groups. Yet only one department – the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which fired a detective for racist posts – has publicly taken any significant action. More than 50 departments promised investigations, but few have taken any other steps.”
Val Van Brocklin is a former state and federal prosecutor based in Alaska and one of the country’s foremost law enforcement trainers and speakers. She has done extensive research and training on the subject of social media posts by officers. And in recent years, there has been no shortage of pertinent examples.
“I take stories like yours, examples that make the news as the basis for my training,” Van Brocklin says. “Typically, the comments are related to race, gender, ethnicity, mental illness, homelessness, there’s a whole laundry list of topics. Comments like this draw into question that commitment to the public trust that first responders are going to respond to calls equitably and without bias.
“I do often wonder what these officers are thinking when they make these posts. Would they walk down the street with these kinds of comments written on a sandwich board? Of course not. But they think nothing of clicking a button and posting it on the world wide web, which is just one big sandwich board in the sky. There seems to be a disconnect here.”
One of the first defenses to these kinds of postings is that the officer has a right to first amendment protections. Van Brocklin says that private-sector employees have no free speech protections on the job. And while public employees have a few more, it’s still very narrow.
Van Brocklin says federal courts have found that a public employee’s right to free speech is usually decided by a three-prong test:
1. Was the speech made as a public employee or private citizen?
2. Was the speech a matter of public concern?
3. Does the right to free speech outweigh the importance of the function of the employing agency?
“You have to meet the first two thresholds for the third to come into play,” Van Brocklin says. “The fact is, police officers need the public trust to effectively accomplish their mission. Without the public’s trust, that becomes a danger to all police officers. Whenever you have statements being made that tend to disenfranchise a certain group, you’re really going to have a hard time meeting that third-prong.”
That’s why Dickinson says complete systematic and departmental reform is needed. Just dealing with one officer’s comments and then moving on won’t solve the problem. In the wake of protests against police tactics, including using armed officers in unmarked vehicles to make “jump-out” arrests at protests, Mayor Bill Peduto said he was stopping that kind of activity and announced that a new incident commander would oversee protests.
“How many officers saw these posts and said absolutely nothing?” Dickinson says. “Police officers cannot police themselves and these racist comments will send a signal to black and brown communities. It will adversely affect the community’s beliefs that these officers will keep them safe.
“You’re not going to solve institutional racism by simply rearranging leaders at the top of your command structure.”