'See Something Say Something' Sends Philly Counter-Terrorism Unit After A Local Journalist Over A Harmless Facebook Post

from the citizens-need-to-learn-the-power/responsibility-adage dept

It’s troubling how little is needed to trigger a police investigation and some ancillary damage to the First Amendment. Thanks to flagging tools provided by social media platforms, almost anything can be sent to local law enforcement for additional inspection, which results in the following sort of thing, in equal parts absurd and horrifying.

It all started Dec. 14, when local DJ and gay activist Matt Beierschmitt took to Facebook to chastise gays for patronizing a nightclub named ICandy at 254 S. 12th St. Its owner had made headlines in 2016 when he was recorded making disparaging remarks about black people. [Philadelphia journalist Ernest] Owens responded, echoing his sentiments and blasting both ICandy and the Mummers.

“I say, ‘F– em,’ they will be shown better than told,” Owens wrote. “I will just leave it at that. A great reckoning is coming.”

Four days later, Owens said, he got a phone call from Detective Lawrence Richardson Jr. of the Police Department’s Dignitary Protection and Counter Terrorism Operations unit, informing him that he was being investigated because of his Facebook comment.

“I said, ‘What?'” he recalled. “I’m thinking: ‘They’re calling me about something on Facebook?’ Police shouldn’t be engaging me over a Facebook post.”

But they were. Philly police insisted on speaking personally to Owens about his post. He met them at the unit’s headquarters the next day. Once there, the officers said stuff about “see something, say something” and proceeded to question Owens about gun ownership, bomb-making ability, and any plans he might have to harm anyone else. After answering these questions, the police told Owen he was “cleared” and free to go. The officers also told him this was standard procedure police follow when criminal activity is reported.

Except there was no criminal activity. There was only a single Facebook post helpfully forwarded to the police by another Facebook user.

During the interrogation, Owens said, he noticed paperwork listing the name of the man who had complained about his Facebook comment.

That man, James DePre, a saxophone player and leader of the Quaker City String Band, said Wednesday that he emailed Owens’ comment to the police after someone sent it to him and after he’d attended a parade-safety planning meeting of officers from the Third and Fourth Districts and community members, including Mummers.

“At that meeting, the police said, ‘If you see something, say something.’ I don’t even know who he is,” DePre said of Owens. “‘A day of reckoning is coming,'” that was the thing I reacted to. That’s what prompted me to send it to the police. If you have a public event and you get a message like that, that stood out to me. So I said, ‘Here it is, you can do whatever you want with it.'”

Well, they did what they wanted to with it. This should be a cautionary lesson to social media users. If you send something to law enforcement, they may decide to take away someone’s freedom. If something goes wrong during this process, they may also take away someone’s life. “Better safe than sorry” is a shitty platitude to deploy after some “see something, say something” do-gooding ends a fellow citizen’s life. I don’t expect social media users to be experts in sussing out true threats, but they should definitely be more careful about dragging men with guns into the mix over ambiguous words posted during heated discussions.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the police are out of line. This is what we pay law enforcement to do: follow up on reported criminal activity. But everything about law enforcement is discretionary, which can result in rights violations or biased response rates. “See something, say something” very rarely results in actionable info, but police are just as invested in the “better safe than sorry” platitude and do what they can to encourage this unfortunate cycle of events.

There’s no good fix for this. All that can be offered is an abundance of caution. People making complaints need to recognize the potential severity of a law enforcement response. And law enforcement needs to realize it doesn’t need to disrupt a citizen’s life just because some internet rando sent them a Facebook screenshot. All in all, this could have gone worse. But even when it goes well, it still has an adverse effect on people who committed no crime but still find themselves surrounded by cops demanding to know about the weapons they own (gun ownership: still legal) and their level of antipathy towards their fellow humans. Non-custodial interviews are bullshit because they often require proving negatives to law enforcement satisfaction while requiring almost nothing from the law enforcement officers asking the questions.

Ernest Owens has made more of this than is strictly necessary, but he’s not completely wrong. He may be overstating the effect of this interaction with law enforcement, but he certainly will feel less free to post his thoughts in public forums, especially if those thoughts are critical of others.

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Comments on “'See Something Say Something' Sends Philly Counter-Terrorism Unit After A Local Journalist Over A Harmless Facebook Post”

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48 Comments
btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Criminal activity

If the cops don’t investigate something like that post when it’s brought to their attention, when someone shoots up a gay nightclub and there are bullet-filled bodies lying everywhere, the media (and likely at least one of the more virulently anti-police staff writers here at TechDirt) will hold up that Facebook post, which had been forwarded to the cops, and demand to know why the incompetent police didn’t do something about this guy and stop him from committing the slaughter.

Investigate—> You’re an authoritarian asshole who shits on the Constitution for fun.

Don’t investigate—> You’re an incompetent monster who has the blood of dozens on his hands.

Wendy Cockcroft (user link) says:

Re: Re: Criminal activity

I’ve never seen such a post, though TD has covered a lot of shooter incidents where the warning signs had been available online. Usually, in those cases, they highlight the difficulty of assessing posts in which the writer fantasizes about shooting up a school, etc., when we’re all under surveillance, the idea being that targeted surveillance (+ warrant for getting into private online areas!) is the better option.

Better to carry out a light touch investigation that finds nothing untoward than to leave well alone till the shooting starts.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

“This is what we pay law enforcement to do: follow up on reported criminal activity.”

Not exactly. They were notified of a threat (DePre said of Owens. “‘A day of reckoning is coming,'”), and questioned the person making that threat to determine if the threat was credible.

Which SHOULD be proper procedure. We see too much of the opposite, often in articles here, where the response to a threat that MAY be credible is to send in the SWAT teams.

SOMEONE has to determine if a threat is credible. These cops should be lauded for their handling of this.

And note that the police did NOT act on DeFre’s Facebook posting, the acted on another citizen *reporting* the threat that DeFre made on Facebook. World of difference there.

John Smith says:

Re: Re:

It wasn’t DePre who said “shown rather than told” or “Day of reckoning.”

The correct response by police would have been to just call Owens and ask what he meant by the post.

Several mass shooters have made “ominous” posts that were technically not illegal.

People who show verbal aggression towards others online get police files opened up on them much more than they realize. The second you lash out at someone, if they get harmed, you have motive. Very unwise to lash out anymore.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"The correct response by police would have been to just call Owens and ask what he meant by the post."

Better yet, read the rest of his facebook postings and, if further flags were triggered, determine whether there were persistent signs of intent to do harm.

Because there is never a good reason for picking up one ambiguous sentence casually mentioned and use that as a lever to begin as in-depth an investigation as an interrogation beginning with the miranda. That simply sends the message that "We are watching you." which, to any journalist, means Bad Things(TM).

"Several mass shooters have made "ominous" posts that were technically not illegal."

Think about it. You get angry, pound down a single line in anger, and suddenly have the police knocking on your door with the assumption that you may be a dangerous would-be mass murderer. Tell me again about this first amendment of yours, kemo sabe…

Anonymous Coward says:

Generally speaking I agree with the article – a Facebook post typically shouldn’t attract a full-blown police investigation. But that’s where “typically” comes is – anyone posting “A great reckoning is coming” has lost ANY AND ALL potential sympathy on my part for whatever happens to him based on that. See, that DOES sound like a threat. Like, a lot. Like, a fucking whole lot. Would I go and denounce it to the authorities? Probably not. But I cannot and will not fault anyone else doing it either. I don’t know what exactly I would expect the police to do based on that in an ideal world. But, you know, a threat doesn’t need to go all the way to “I WILL MURDERKILL YOU, FOR REALSIES!” to be a threat. You would be well advised to consider that when you next post something with the sole and explicit intent to make it sound like a threat, you know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Anyone posting "A great reckoning is coming" has lost ANY AND ALL potential sympathy on my part for whatever happens to him based on that.

1) Ever heard of hyperbole?

2) Are you affiliated with the copyright maximalists, as they also desire third parties to impose arbitrary rules of their choosing on everybody else?

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re:

A great reckoning is coming can mean many things. Said to a political opponent, it can reasonable be read as a belief that the opponents political stances/statements in office will come back to bite them. In a legal dispute, it reads as a prediction of judgement in court. In a church said by a pastor, it sounds like god is going to call down a meteor and 9 people lead by a guy with a six foot long broad bladed sword and spiky hair will need to intervene to save us all. Context.

In the context of a Facebook post by a journalist in support of a rant about the owners of a nightclub to its patrons calling for a boycott? I don’t read a violent context. I read a boycott context. He is predicting the club going out of business for the actions of its owner. If he had suggested more specific times or days to not attend I would read violence, but contextually, it was agreeing to a Boycott, not violence.

That said, I think the issue was the person who reported it removed the context of the commentary by emailing it to the police. I dont think he provided a link, he just emailed the comment without the context of the post he was responding to.

Gary (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

_That said, I think the issue was the person who reported it removed the context of the commentary by emailing it to the police. I dont think he provided a link, he just emailed the comment without the context of the post he was responding to._

Then maybe the police should have arrested the tipser too. If they didn’t bother to look at the context how could they know this was even said?
The cops didn’t bother to evaluate the statement – they held him until he answered their questions. (I’m not sure how to interpret the article which states that after he was interrogated he was free to go – that implies he was being held until questions were answered. Sounds like lawyer-free interrogation.)

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"See, that DOES sound like a threat. Like, a lot. Like, a fucking whole lot. Would I go and denounce it to the authorities? Probably not. But I cannot and will not fault anyone else doing it either. I don’t know what exactly I would expect the police to do based on that in an ideal world. But, you know, a threat doesn’t need to go all the way to "I WILL MURDERKILL YOU, FOR REALSIES!" to be a threat."

In the life of the average man or woman the amount of times they will have posted in affect, some ambiguous one-liner which COULD be interpreted as a threat is pletiful enough to make the situation described in the OP a bad charade.

The USUAL use, in the US, of the term "day of reckoning is coming" would be when some religious bible-thumper uses it to indicate someone will be smitten by the wrath of god.

This is exactly the sort of thing covered by the first amendment. It means exactly nothing in itself other than that someone has been angry enough to make an angry comment.

It is not a threat, nor does it indicate a threat. If your last month of history contained angry diatribes and a fervent wish for bodily harm to come for someone – now THAT may be worthy of investigation.

But in the OP what we’re looking at is a police station wasting perhaps a thousand dollars of taxpayer money in bureaucracy and pre-investigation preparation over a journalists use of COMMON LANGUAGE.

Your definition means freedom of speech does not, any longer, exist, because legal notice will be served unto anyone not nitpickingly abiding by polite language at all times.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

It all depends on context; if you’re on a Jehova’s Witness discussion forum, it would be expected; if you say that and have a history of saying people of other races/nationalities need to die, and there are pictures on FB of you in discount military gear with your automatic weapons collection… it should be followed up. In this case, the only context related to a public gathering, so there was no way to know if it was hyperbole commonly used in that forum or a direct threat.

If I were those police, I would have gone and got a warrant for his FB account and checked to see if this was part of a pattern, and not bothered calling him in once it was found he was harmless.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"If I were those police, I would have gone and got a warrant for his FB account"

No, if you were the police you could have logged onto FB and found that his public posting history presented a pretty clear picutre, whereupon which you might probably have dropped the issue.

The police in this case wasted numerous hours and assets on an issue a casual 15-minbute check would have rendered irrelevant, rather than spend that effort on something actually worth investigating.

Anonymous Coward says:

A great day of reckoning is coming.

The threat is in the ear of the listener and entirely depends on their outlook. To a member of a persecuted minority, it amounts to “God will get him for this.” To a different person, it sounds like a bomb threat.

The real difficulty is that there are a LOT of thin-skinned and thick-headed people out there and you never know which listener is going to do something stupid with your words.

BTW, unless there is a clear and visible threat (e.g. active shooter), I don’t report anything to the police. Too much chance of getting an innocent person shot.

John Smith says:

Re: A great day of reckoning is coming.

So if the KKK had posted to Owens that “This Nr ft needs to be shown, not told. A great day of reckoning is coming,” he wouldn’t have felt threatened?

In that scenario, as in this one, the proper thing for police to do is let everyone know they’re aware of the conflict, and that everyone should knock it off.

James Burkhardt (profile) says:

Re: Re: A great day of reckoning is coming.

Except, in other contexts those words are predictions of non-violent outcomes. In a legal conflict, that can be claim that the court will hold them accountable. In politics, its basically saying ‘elections are coming’.

When in response to a call for a boycott you reply “I say, ‘F– em,’ they will be shown better than told. I will just leave it at that. A great reckoning is coming.” You are supporting the call for the boycott and are predicting failure of the business as the owners are shown that their actions were bad for business, not violence. Its not a vary ominous statement in context.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: A great day of reckoning is coming.

"So if the KKK had posted to Owens that "This Nr ft needs to be shown, not told. A great day of reckoning is coming," he wouldn’t have felt threatened?"

Probably not, since this is more or less what you see on right-wing web pages all day 24/7 with no tangible increase in hate violence to be tied to the posts.

He’d probably be outraged over hearing the N-word used again, being a member of two persecuted minorities, but the sad fact is, for either of those minorities, it’s something they’re very used to reading. And most of them know that’s not in itself going to mean bodily harm.

A one-liner on FB written in anger…honestly, I could understand it if he’d written similar notions over the span of weeks or months, but that obviously isn’t it.

The only proper thing for the police to do is to read his open public history, finding the full story, and dismiss it as a one-liner written in anger.

Anonymous Coward says:

I can’t weigh in on this particular case, but boy are there a lot of blue check-marked journalists on Twitter saying things that qualify under ‘see something, say something’ these days. I report them when seen and Twitter to their credit have removed a large number of hateful posts in this category. They seem to let that blue check-mark stay in place and the accounts aren’t shuttered though. There’s plenty of accounts shut down without warning that would cry foul at unequal treatment there.

Chris ODonnell (profile) says:

I’ve been wondering if see something say something has anything to do with how often racist white people call to report walking while black, or riding a bike while black or other such offenses. I mean, it’s basic racism and it’s always been there, but I wonder if the constant barrage of messaging from the government, along with a racist in the white house, emboldens these people to act.

tom (profile) says:

Given the grief law enforcement got over failing to act on the many reported postings and activities the the Parkland shooter made, going to have to side with the Police on this one. If Owens was planning something and carried it out and the Police had failed to act on the Facebook posting, we would be having an entirely different discussion.

Seems like the Police handled this fairly lightly. It wasn’t a no-knock raid in the middle of the night. Just a quick Q&A session after which Owens went about his business.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Seems like the Police handled this fairly lightly. It wasn’t a no-knock raid in the middle of the night. Just a quick Q&A session after which Owens went about his business.

And will maybe become over cautious about what he says online, as will some other people reading about this incident.

When the whole context is available publicly one line, and they have identified the person, they cold have spent a few minutes looking at what had been published, and in what context. Actually talking to the person is them sending a message about what the police find acceptable, when it is not their job to set public morals.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"Given the grief law enforcement got over failing to act on the many reported postings and activities the the Parkland shooter made, going to have to side with the Police on this one."

You would, huh?

I don’t. In my mind the police just wasted several hours worth of work on something which should be considered a non-issue once they spent 15 minutes reading his public posts and seen that he wasn’t threatening death to specified individuals in every sentence for a week or two on end.

Because by your argument the police could sit down and waste 100% of their time going through every alt-right page on the web with a comment section rather than focusing on the actual insane hotheads presenting pageloads of disturbing and blatantly obvious desire for people of a given type to die.

Any policeman who wasted more than 15 minutes on this is one who found a good way of not doing his actual job.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Given the grief law enforcement got over failing to act on the many reported postings and activities the the Parkland shooter made, going to have to side with the Police on this one.

There is a difference between a pattern of many postings and activities threatening violence, and one use of a common phrase that is rarely used to indicate impending violence.

To act every time every time something taken out of context could possibly, at a stretch, indicate violence will turn the police into the thought police.

Anonymous Coward says:

And they rode on Horses

When the Lamb broke the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature saying, “Come.” I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him. Authority was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by the wild beasts of the earth.

Yep a reckoning is coming
and I don’t think the po po is gonna save ya

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

See something, imagine the worst possible scenario, and flip out

“‘A day of reckoning is coming,'”

Please someone FOIA the investigations into every single pastor screaming this is gods reckoning & how he will punish us.

We live in a society where we’ve been tricked into being suspicious of anyone not like us or if their words make us feel ookie.

Cops would have a field day with me, I have access to many weapons and I’m the one who keep pointing out that cops finding “bomb making supplies” is often locating everyday household cleaners in the home.

Much like the last busybody lady who tried to keep the black man from entering his home, ‘well the management said not to allow access to anyone we didn’t know!!!’
I have a feeling they were talking about holding the door open for anyone just walking up to the building.
She felt uncomfortable so she called the cops… but she wasn’t uncomfortable enough to stand in his way, demand he respect her authority over his black ass, follow him to his home & still flip out after he used his key to enter his home.

It is one thing to see someone loading 50 gallon barrels into a rental van & make a call…
It is another to see words, they themselves might have said, about some asshole online & make a call…

Of course the cops had to look, if this turned out later to not be just a random comment they might get blamed.
Of course the downside people aren’t thinking about is that someone who is making actual threats (rather than frustrated comments) might feel persecuted & get more worked up.

We are a society that is now looking at everything in the worst possible light & reacting as if it is fact.
OMG A BLACK MAN WITH 2 WHITE KIDS!!!!!!!!!!!
Her not understanding a random stranger rushing up to kids might upset them into silence & that popping up multiple times could scare them much more.
Of course this comes form the insane belief that any child outside without someone of the same color within arms reach is going to be snatched & sold into sex trafficking!!!!
Sure there is no evidence to support this, sure we’ve passed laws making it illegal for a parent to decide their child can go to the park alone, this is obviously a real problem!!!

Then there was the case of the white woman who was ‘terribly worried’ about a child sitting in a car with an adult & demanded the parent answer her questions, then called the police when the parent got irritated… and when her white husband came out of the store suddenly she was no longer worried.

Anonymous Coward says:

Better Safe Than...Free

See something, say something, a.k.a., reporting your family and neighbors to the authorities for marginally questionable activity, is a time-honored practice encouraged by the ruling powers of fascist and communistic police states, theocracies, et al. throughout the world throughout history. Which one are we again?

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Better Safe Than...Free

"…a time-honored practice encouraged by the ruling powers of fascist and communistic police states, theocracies, et al. throughout the world throughout history. Which one are we again?"

Every FBI director since Hoover has consistently spoken on the merits of privacy and freedom in a way which would make the old DDR presidents of former East Germany proud.

"freedom" is a relative word today, and as soon as we actually ended up inventing a medium of true international communication accessible to everyone every government around started doing overtime in discouraging its use in a thousand minor and major ways.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

Re: Better Safe Than...Free

Points to prior coverage here on TechDirt about the stats for the see somethign say something tipline

people trying to get their daughters BF deported
people trying to get people who parked near their house deported
and a long list of other noncrimes

We have people who call 911 b/c McD ran out of mcnuggets & we think we can trust them with an anonymous tip line??

This one simple trick would improve the quality….
If you call in a bogus tip, you get ticketed/fined.
If someone honestly thinks something bad is happening, they aren’t going to worry about a fine…
If someone is just trying to screw with someone in a passive aggressive way the first 4 fines being publicized will end these things.

Stop pretending that punishing any of the people who have reported people for being black will lead to people overlooking actual terrorists. Stop the tacit approval of respect my authority b/c I’m white and you are not calls. Show up & when it is clear its an uppity whitey, hand them a fscking ticket for wasting time.
Nothing bad was happening, nothing scary, just another person who dared question your right to demand answers from them. Hell if a black person walked up on white folk with the same behavior, they’d have called 911 claiming they were about to me murdered…. but somehow in their heads it is okay if they get to do it.

NitroLab (profile) says:

The FBI visited me a little over a year ago because I posted a snarky comment on the FBIs FB page. They made a post about job openings and I posted “Hey FBI – Federal Bureau of Investigation, I kind of want to shoot innocent women in the head, do you have any of those positions open?” referring to FBI SRT sniper Lon Horiuchi shooting and killing Vicky Weaver in the head while she was holding her baby at Ruby Ridge.

The world’s most elite law enforcement agency couldn’t figure out that it was sarcasm and making fun of their own agency’s actions.

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