From “Frito-Bandito” To “Watermelon” Comments: Warwick Police Face Social Media Criticism

The Warwick Police Department is facing criticism for its handling of social media, after recent posts including identifying a dark-skinned suspect as the “Frito Bandito” — and elicited a “bring the watermelon” comment on a post regarding two black suspects. 

Warwick Police Chief Colonel Rick Rathbun addressed the “Frito-Bandito” post — and why the Department took it down, but plans on re-posting the appeal — with a new post. 

“There is a balance [on social media]. If it’s just sterile post, people won’t read,” said Rathbun. “But we don’t ever want to disparage anyone.”

“The detective who posted it was not aware [the context might be controversial,]” said Rathbun of the “Frito-Bandito” moniker, which was used by Frito-Lay in the 1970s as a caricature of a Mexican bandit.

“The [bigger] problem with the post was that the suspect didn’t just steal chips, he stole hundreds of dollars of items. We’re actually probably going to [re]post something with more information,” he added. 

The shoplifting allegedly happened on October 11 on Bald Hill Road.

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On Monday, WPD asked the public for any information on a separate incident, after they said a victim’s wallet was taken from a locker at Planet Fitness located at 650 Bald Hill Road — and his credit card was used by two suspects at the nearby Walmart and Burlington Coat Factory, and provided a photo of the two black men. 

“The socks and sandals are the secondary crime,” wrote commenter Ayme Robinson of the two men pictured, to which commenter Anita Gargano wrote, “All they need is the watermelon and the ocean!”

Gerald Carbone, who had run for Mayor in the last election, said in response on Facebook that he believed the comment was racist — to which Gargano disagreed. 

“Anita Gargano — who is this ‘they’ of whom you speak? The watermelon trope is as old and tired and as racist as the Confederacy. We have to call out racism when we see it, and we see it. Race is an artificial construct, concocted to justify the Atlantic trade in enslaved people,” said Carbone. “There is but one race: the human race. The ‘sock and sandals’ line is amusing; the watermelon remark is stereotypical and racist.”

Gargano, when reached for comment, however, said she didn’t feel the comment was racist — and that she would be fine with it coming down. 

“Anyone that wears socks and sandals, usually have their watermelon [and] go in the water. I’ve seen many different races do that — I have no problem [with taking the comment down],” said Gargano, who then deleted the comment.  

Role of Department Questioned 

Carbone thanked Gargano for deleting the comment — but was highly critical of the Police Department’s handling of social media. 

“Presumably the police department monitors these comments— after all, the ostensible reason for posting them is to elicit information,” he continued. “The department’s acceptance of racist comments like that is a tacit endorsement of them.”

“I believe they do have a responsibility for monitoring their social media,” said Carbone. “When the police representative reads a post as blatantly offensive as ‘all they need is watermelon,’ s/he has a responsibility to do something about that comment— delete it, rebut it. Silence is a tacit endorsement.”

“I’d be surprised, happily, if the number of posts featuring non-whites is commensurate with the data of crimes allegedly committed by non-white people,” said Carbone. “Even if that were the case, which I doubt, these posts elicit comments about perceived legal status, ‘scum,’ and other disturbing racial tropes that the police department leaves up unchallenged.”

“The department itself chose to call one guy allegedly stealing a bag of chips ‘The Frito Bandito,’” said Carbone. “Fritos created a stereotype [of] Mexican man with a big sombrero and a cactus to rest his lazy self against, and it became infamous as a blatantly racist caricature of Mexicans. In an attempt to be humorous the Warwick PD resurrected the old Frito Bandito. They can’t claim they never heard of it, because the bag of chips in question weren’t even Fritos.”

Chief Responds

The Warwick Police Department uses Facebook frequently to make appeals to the public to help provide information relating to crimes they are looking to solve. 

The Providence Police Department, by contrast, has now refused to utilize social media to alert the public to criminal activity. 

“We don’t monitor social media 24/7 — our Facebook page says that,” said Rathbun on Monday. “But if something comes to our attention that is ignorant, we do give the clear terms and conditions [of engagement] on our Faceboo page, and we will take it down.”

Rathbun said he had been unaware of the “watermelon” post that Carbone referenced — and responded to his criticism that the WPD is selective in its posting of crimes on social media. 

“We use social media when we have clear probable cause of crime that we’re unable to use conventional means [to solve], “ said Rathbun. “We use it when we have clear evidence that the public can weigh in on. And we’ve had a huge success rate.”

“We always have an obligation to be responsive,” said Rathbun. “There is a balance. But if [the content] is sterile, people don’t read posts.”


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