Eppie Chapman never imagined he would have to explain to his co-workers details behind a Facebook photo of him sitting on a West Baltimore sidewalk surrounded by police officers.
Chapman, 42, a heavy equipment operator, said he was pulled over by Baltimore police on Jan. 17 for not properly displaying tags on the front of his vehicle.
While police initially told Chapman to stay behind the driver’s wheel, they later saw him moving inside his car, which prompted officers to issue a profanity-laced warning immediately followed by an order to exit the vehicle and sit on the sidewalk. And though he was never placed in handcuffs or arrested, Chapman alleges that while on the sidewalk, an African-American officer snapped a picture of him and told another officer it was for “COP Toons,” a Facebook page where some officers post photographs of the people they encounter on the job.
Chapman was eventually given a citation for not displaying his front tags and his car was towed, but the real shocker came, he said, when he got home and pulled up the Facebook page on his computer. There he found a single photograph of himself, sitting on the cobblestone walkway where the incident had unfolded just hours before.
“It’s belittling and it’s an insult,” Chapman told the AFRO of the page that had 58 “likes.”
“It’s like they’re playing a game with people’s lives,” he said. “If it was put on there by news media, I could understand it. But doing this just to put the person out there in the public like this is bogus.”
Chapman said he told the officers he did not want his photograph taken and placed on Facebook. The Black officer then told him it was legal to take the photo in a public space without his consent, Chapman said.
According to information posted on the page, COP Toons is a “cartoon gallery of real police officers in the Baltimore Police Department” which began six months ago and features more than 20 photographs.
The photos show officers talking with individuals in handcuffs, talking and laughing with people on the street and officers in their offices.
Some of the photos have captions. “No drug dealers to arrest this morning,” read the words next to one photo of an officer biting his nails while sitting in the passenger seat of a car.
Baltimore Police Department spokesman Anthony Guglielmi has said the page has no official ties to the organization.
“This is not a departmental page,” he said. “It looks like a personal page of somebody and it doesn’t necessarily say who.”
“We want to make sure our people take a look at the entire page to determine if there’s anything on here that is a violation of our policies and procedures,” he said after reviewing more than a dozen of the images posted to the page via the Friendcaster app for Android phones. “From what I can gather, so far, none of the photos appear to have questionable activity.”
“I just see a lot of photos of police officers doing their work, but there is no proof that it was posted by a police officer,” he added.
Guglielmi said there would only be concern about the images on the website if information about witnesses or potential victims of crimes was being disclosed.
“If you are in a public place and you are taking a photograph, that photograph is in the public domain so there are no legal restrictions,” he said.
The spokesman further clarified BPD officers are not allowed to photograph and post anything “of evidentiary value – crime scene evidence, victims or witnesses.”
Guglielmi told the AFRO that based on the information published on the site, “It’s not clear” whether the postings are coming from officers but even if they are, many factors come into play when considering any internal action against those possibly involved, especially with no solid rules on the use of technology in this way.
“By the letter of the law, there’s not much we can do, but as far as policy and procedure, we will have to take a better look,” said Guglielmi. “There is a social media policy that is currently in draft in our legal affairs section, but right now there is no formal policy on social media.”
Guglielmi said that concerned citizens could file a complaint about COP Toons with the internal affairs division, who will then delve deeper into the issue.
Reprimand, if any, for officers allegedly involved could range in severity based on many variables such as whether the officer was a responding or an arresting officer, or whether they were on or off duty when the photographs were taken and uploaded.
Because there is no social media policy for officers, who also have Constitutional rights that need protection, Guglielmi added that any internal punishment would fall under a broader category, such as general misconduct.
Meredith Curtis, communications director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland (ACLU), was aware of the page that as of a little more than a month ago was still posting new photos, but did give an official comment before clearing information with the legal arm of the organization.
An early 2012 policy affirmed by the U.S. Department of Justice says BPD officers can be filmed while doing their jobs, but the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, president of the Baltimore Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) said the taking of the photographs by officers has the potential to “exacerbate the arrest,” and it gives the presumption of guilt before any facts are assessed.
After a civil disobedience arrest for protesting at City Hall over the closings of some recreation centers and several incidents involving Black men shot by police officers in 2012, Witherspoon found that his own image had been added to the page’s albums.
“We need the police commissioner to enact an Internet electronic media policy,” said Witherspoon, who said he also is featured on the website as a result of his calling the practice of on-duty officers posting to the COP Toons website “borderline Constitutional.”
“We need someone to police the police and we need a formal policy- a change in policy and consequences for officers that are participating,” Witherspoon added.