PHILADELPHIA, PA — More than a dozen current and former Philadelphia police officers sued the city this month, saying they were fired, suspended, or forced to retire due to “reverse racism” or “viewpoint discrimination” aimed at weeding out cops with right-wing views.
All 16 plaintiffs were disciplined or lost their jobs in response to the 2019 publication of Facebook posts from more than 300 city cops who had expressed what the researchers who exposed them described as racist, dehumanizing, or violent views online.
The officers’ claims, laid out in two lawsuits filed in federal court in Philadelphia, come as the department faces a moment of reckoning over racial bias sparked by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Each of the plaintiffs has been “falsely maligned and effectively branded racists,” said Larry L. Crain, a Tennessee lawyer representing nine of the current and former officers. Among his clients’ posts are messages referring to Syrian refugees as “savages” and Muslims as “the evil that wants to kill you.” Other posts threatened violence against transgender people and celebrated aggressive — and in some cases illegal — police responses to protests.
The most recent of the suits, filed Sunday on behalf of seven fired officers, was submitted by Larry Klayman, a right-wing activist lawyer who heads the Washington-based organization Freedom Watch.
In a complaint laden with feverish, racially charged, and conspiracy-minded language, he alleged his clients were victims of an intentional effort to discriminate against white male police by city officials, department leaders, and the Plainview Project, the organization behind the exposing of the problematic posts.
“The mission of Plainview [was] to maliciously harm police officers and provoke violent attacks against them and their families in order to cause a breakdown of societal order, such that leftist, socialist, communist, radical African Americans, radical Muslims and radicals on the Jewish left, radical atheists, radical anarchists such as Antifa and other radical forces can assume control of the nation,” he wrote.
He contends his clients — who include former Officers Michael Melvin, Dan Farrelly, Brion Milligan, Mark Palma, Robert Bannan, Jesus Cruz, and Steven Hartzell — are not “racist, homophobic [or] Islamophobic.” Posts authored or shared by them and flagged by the Plainview Project include messages referring to Black people as “animals,” Black Lives Matter protesters as “monkeys” and “filthy scum,” and Muslims as “Islamo-s—birds.”
The nine officers represented by Crain took a more measured tone in their legal action, eschewing allegations of racial discrimination against them. Instead, they contended that city officials violated their First Amendment rights by arbitrarily disciplining or firing them for expressing political views on their private social media accounts when there was no clear departmental social media policy barring them from doing so.
Together, the suits seek more than $108 million in damages.
City officials did not respond to requests for comment on the claims. District Attorney Larry Krasner, who is named along with Mayor Jim Kenney, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw, and former Commissioner Richard Ross as a defendant in Klayman’s suit, dismissed them out of hand.
“The people whose postings were collected by the Plainview Project clicked keys on keyboards with their own fingers so that they could express themselves, and then made sure the whole world knew about it by setting up no security,” he said. “They were in essence publicizing their opinions for everyone to see. Guys, why run away from them now? Congratulations, the whole world is watching.”
The lawsuits come a year after Ross, who lost his own job last year amid allegations of sexual harassment, announced the firing of 13 officers for posts noted in the Plainview Project’s archives — the largest mass dismissal of department employees in recent city history. In the months that followed, a few others lost their jobs, some resigned, and dozens who remained on the force faced disciplinary action, including reprimands and unpaid suspensions.
“I continue to be very angered and disappointed by these posts, many of which, in my view, violate the basic tenets of human decency,” Ross said at the time, adding that the department “must move past this ridiculous hate that just consumes this country.”
But Crain, in legal filings, argued that Ross’ move and comments by Kenney and Krasner have made it impossible for his clients — who include former Officers Christian Fenico, Thomas Gack, Edward McCammitt, Tanya Grandizio, Anthony Anzideo, Anthony Acquaviva, Kristine Amato, and Joseph Przepiorka — to obtain other employment in law enforcement.
A defamation lawsuit from Inspector D.F. Pace, a police commander also named in the Plainview Project database, was quickly dismissed by a judge. Another suit — involving a police sergeant in Phoenix whose posts were also exposed — remains pending in federal court in Arizona.
Klayman, a former federal prosecutor, has had dozens of lawsuits filed by his organization thrown out of court, including one 2014 effort seeking the deportation of Barack Obama during his presidency. He has been permanently banned from two courts and last month was suspended from practicing law for 90 days by the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, citing ethics violations.
A federal judge has not yet set a hearing date in either of the cases.