A recent incident in Philadelphia shows police are willing to bend the truth and fabricate entirely to push their worldview.
Last Thursday evening, amid a new wave of protests following the Philadelphia Police Department’s killing of Walter Wallace Jr., the National Fraternal Order of Police, the country’s largest police labor union, posted a photograph of a toddler on social media. In the photograph, the young child is seen clutching an unmasked female officer while he appears to receive medical treatment from another officer. The post claims the child was “lost during the violent riots in Philadelphia, wandering around barefoot in an area that was experiencing complete lawlessness. ... The only thing this Philadelphia Police Officer cared about in that moment was protecting this child.”
Very little of this statement — which racked up thousands of likes on Facebook and Twitter, and continues to circulate on other accounts — is true.
Very little of this statement — which racked up thousands of likes on Facebook and Twitter, and continues to circulate on other accounts — is true. A few minutes before the photo was taken, the baby was sitting comfortably in the backseat of a car driven by his mother. It was an act a lawlessness that separated the parent and child — but it was lawlessness on the part of the police, not the protesters.
What we know now is that, far from wandering the streets shoeless, when the boy’s mother, Rickia Young, turned down a street with a line of police on it, she attempted a three-point turn, only to be met with a shocking amount of force. Police smashed the windows of the car and violently pulled Young, her son and her nephew out of the vehicle and onto the ground.
Neither the police, nor the Fraternal Order of Police nor the department released this information. We don’t know the true story of this encounter because of police. We learned about it because someone took a video of the entire incident from a nearby rooftop.
The union took their posts down 30 minutes after The Philadelphia Inquirer asked about the video, but not before it had been shared thousands of times and reshared across various other police-affiliated and pro-police accounts. On some accounts that reshared the content, the post received over 30,000 likes.
Police social media is split into two distinct types. First there are the official accounts, which post about suspects and share pictures of antique guns found in searches. These accounts feel authoritative and attempt to inform the public about police work. The second type of social media accounts are run by police unions.
But both types are forms of propaganda. The first’s goal is to relegitimize the police in an era when more and more people wish to see its role in society minimized, outsourced or ultimately eliminated. Police Twitter attempts to share the message daily: How can you get rid of us when we found these drugs out in the world?
In reality, most police officers do not spend the majority of their days orchestrating drug busts, but rather guarding subway turnstiles and aggressively policing low-level infractions in already overpoliced neighborhoods.
The second type of police social media, the accounts run by unions and other police-affiliated societies, is just as dangerous — but in a different way.
These accounts do not strive to be informative. Police unions on social media can, at best, be characterized as partisan propaganda and at worst as engaging in active or deliberate disinformation campaigns. They aim to create a picture of police work, not as it really is, but as they would like it to be. These accounts depict a world in which they are the only thing that prevents children from being abandoned by their parents, a moral universe in which the tragic victims of crime and disorder are not hard-working people, but the police themselves, who serve despite little gratitude from the public.
In June, the New York Sergeants Benevolent Association announce on Twitter, without any verification or proof, that three NYPD officers had been deliberately poisoned by Shake Shack employees. A police investigation found that some cleaning fluid inside the milkshake machine had not been fully cleared, leading to a strange taste. No crime had been committed, but it was already too late. Media outlets across the country had picked up the story that officers had been poisoned, and a public outcry was well under way.
These lies, half-truths and amplified unconfirmed rumors do not just obscure actual police violence, they also contort every story into one of police victimhood. The toddler in Philadelphia is no longer a victim of police violence — he is transformed into a monument to how underappreciated police are. The tweet’s message is not really about the child’s safety at all, but rather how unfair protests against police violence are. The tweet asks, why should people protest an organization that protects children? But in order to remake the story into one of police victimhood, it first had to manufacture the harm against this toddler in order to protect him from it.
“We are not your enemy,” the tweet said, “We are the Thin Blue Line. And WE ARE the only thing standing between Order and Anarchy.”
But if “anarchy” is defined here by the people who separated a toddler from his mother amid a shower of broken glass, then it is the police, not protesters, who are the purveyors of disorder.