'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.