By Chad Calder | Nola.com | July 20, 2019
A Gretna police officer posted a comment on his Facebook page this past week calling U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez a “vile idiot” who “needs a round, and I don’t mean the kind she used to serve.”
The comment, which alludes to the freshman Democrat’s past work as a New York City bartender while apparently saying she should be shot, comes amid increasing scrutiny of racist and violent social media posts by police officers in departments across the country.
Charlie Rispoli, who has been on the Gretna police force since 2005, could not be reached for comment, but Chief Arthur Lawson called the post “disturbing” when it was shown to him Friday.
“I will tell you this: This will not go unchecked,” Lawson said. “I’m not going to take this lightly and this will be dealt with on our end. It’s not something we want someone that’s affiliated with our department to make these types of statements. That’s not going to happen.”
Lawson said he does not think the comment constitutes an actual threat, but it appears to violate the department’s social media policy, which he said all officers have read and signed.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the message of these elected officials and how frustrated you may or may not get, this certainly is not the type of thing that a public servant should be posting,” he said.
Rispoli’s comment referred to a fake news story he posted to his personal Facebook page on Thursday at 1:51 p.m. The story’s headline attributed a fabricated quote to Ocasio-Cortez saying, “We pay soldiers too much.” The photo on the post is marked as “satire” and it had been labeled “false” by the website snopes.com on Wednesday, but Rispoli appeared to be upset by it.
Rispoli’s posts are not visible to the general public, though they are seen by friends and, by default, friends of friends, based on how much interest they attract. The post had been taken down by Friday afternoon, and his page was down by Saturday.
Rafael Goyeneche, president of the watchdog Metropolitan Crime Commission, reviewed the post and said comments and posts by police officers that advocate violence or lawlessness — credibly or not — constitute a breach of trust.
“The police are held to a higher standard of professionalism,” he said. “Even if this is not actually advocating somebody shoot someone, it’s totally inappropriate for a law enforcement officer to make this poor attempt at humor. All he did was discredit law enforcement in general and his department in particular.”
The controversy comes on the heels of a national uproar over President Donald Trump’s tweets saying Ocasio-Cortez and three other minority congresswomen — all U.S. citizens, all but one born in this country — should “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”
It also follows the June release of a database of violent, racist or misogynistic posts from the Facebook accounts of 3,500 current and former police officers from eight departments around the country. The Plain View Project, started by a Philadelphia lawyer, found that in that city, one-third of the 1,073 Facebook accounts it could link to officers had troubling posts and comments.
About two weeks later, the Philadelphia Police Department took 72 officers off the streets in response, and the chief announced Thursday that 13 of them would be fired.
Other investigations in the last few weeks include a three-part series on the presence of hundreds of current and active-duty officers in extremist Facebook groups and ProPublica’s investigation of a private Facebook group of 9,500 current and former Border Patrol agents that traded in racist, violent and misogynistic posts, including many about Ocasio-Cortez.
Lawson said Gretna’s police officers receive diversity training and have been instructed about the appropriate use of social media. He said he had copies of news reports about the 72 officers taken off the streets in Philadelphia distributed to his officers.
The lesson apparently wasn’t heeded by Rispoli, however.
“We do everything that we can through this department to train our officers to try to make them understand that when they do something like this, the impact is greater than the average citizen,” Lawson said.
Lawson said there have been “a couple” of instances where officers have been given verbal warnings about posts, though those cases involved issues such as posting while out on patrol. He said Rispoli’s comment is the first case in which someone has suggested a violent act, and he said the department’s internal affairs office would look into the matter.
Disciplinary measures, if there are any, would not be made public, he said.
A search of state and federal court systems turned up no claims against Rispoli involving excessive force or civil rights violations, and Goyeneche said it may very well be that a warning is appropriate for an officer who simply exercised bad judgment online. But he said police departments should take such breaches of policy seriously and document them.
“Maybe he is cautioned, maybe he gets some training, but you keep a record so you can track this and see trends,” Goyeneche said. “If there’s no record of this and the newspaper hadn’t discovered it, how would anyone know that this isn’t part of a pattern?”
Goyeneche said the department should use the incident as an opportunity to drive the point home among the ranks.
“This is one of your own; this isn’t some textbook,” he said. “If you don’t use it as a teaching tool, I think you’re setting yourself up for future embarrassment.”