Khushbu Shah as “Islamophobia Pervades U.S. Police Officers’ Facebook Accounts” for Pacific Standard

The day Craig Stephen Hicks was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences for killing three of his Muslim-American neighbors in North Carolina over what he initially claimed to police to be over a “an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” the Chapel Hill Police Department finally disputed his characterization. It took them over four and a half years to change their initial stance.

“What we all know now and what I wish we had said four years ago is that the murders of Deah, Yusor, and Razan were about more than simply a parking dispute,” Police Chief Chris Blue said in a statement on June 12th. He continued: “To the Abu-Salha and Barakat families, we extend our sincere regret that any part of our message all those years ago added to the pain you experienced through the loss of Our Three Winners. And, to the Muslim members of our community, know that you are heard, seen, and valued.”

The statement comes amid a flurry of research and reporting on the often dismissive, or outright prejudiced, attitudes of law enforcement toward Muslims either seeking officers’ aid or at the subject of investigations.

The Plain View Project, created by a group of lawyers, recently released a database of eight police departments around the United States that has identified thousands of Facebook posts and comments by current and former police officers about Muslims. Among the comments, they documented that “[n]umerous posts deemed Islam ‘a cult, not a religion'” and referred to Muslims as “savages” and “goat-humpers.” In response to the revelation of the extent and spread of the posts, a number of police departments, like those in Philadelphia and St. Louis, Missouri, have “launched investigations” into their departments. Additionally, the St. Louis Police Officers’ Association told CNN it has been in touch with the Council on American Islamic Relations to set up a meeting.

A few days later, media outlet Reveal released its own investigation of more than 400 officers across the U.S. who had actively joined hate groups by “participating in the spread of extremism on Facebook,” including sending Islamophobic messages. In one example out of Texas, the research from Reveal cited a police officer’s post of a picture that said: “Islam. A cult of oppression, rape, pedophilia and murder cannot be reasoned with!”

Emily Baker-White, an attorney and the executive director of the Plain View Project, says the most shocking finding from the database, though not a reflection of direct interaction of Muslim Americans and police officers, was the amount of Islamophobia in the database her team compiled. “It stunned me,” she says. “In swaths of American society [a] stigma doesn’t exist when discrimination is levied against Muslim people or refugees coming from anywhere in the Middle East. There is less social punishment or less social stigma on social media for Islamophobia than there appears to be for other types of discrimination.”

These biases can potentially color police interactions with Muslim-American victims of crimes, who are sometimes seen with distrust. In New York, a HuffPost reporter profiled a Muslim woman who says the New York Police Department only investigated her assault on a bus after she found CCTV video to hand over to them. Before that, they told her, they were closing her case because she couldn’t pick out any of her assailants. Fatoumata Camara, who wears a hijab and was the subject of what her lawyer called a hate crime, told HuffPost that the police’s “lack of support has left her traumatized.”

A 2016 study of state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies covering 90 percent of the U.S. population, published by Duke University’s Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security Sanford School of Public Policy, found many Muslim Americans to be skeptical of interactions with law enforcement because, the authors wrote, “they see outreach and engagement efforts as part of a federal counter-terrorism program.” A year later, a 2017 Pew study among Muslim Americans found respondents to be “somewhat” mistrustful of law enforcement.

When interacting with the Muslim-American community, the Duke study reported, police officers had more success after the police “address other, non-terrorism-related, public safety concerns of the community. Some Muslim-American communities believe that their public safety concerns are not being fully addressed by the police and therefore are not interested in engaging on other issues.”

Emily Hoerner, one of the Injustice Watch journalists who co-authored the story released in conjunction with Plain View Project’s database, says she sees a pattern among police social media posts. “There still was a very much us versus them type of content that was being posted by all officers,” she says, adding, “it’s partially this kind of speech that can say I’ve got your back or [we’re a] team. I could see that in the posts that I looked through.”

In the case of the three Muslim Americans killed in North Carolina, it was only after a drawn out trial that Chapel Hill Police Chief Blue released a statement declaring Hicks carried out the murders with “hate in his heart.” In the wake of the shooting four years earlier, as the hashtag #muslimlivesmatters began trending, the family had asked that the incident be investigated as a hate crime, which is generally defined as a violent crime, typically motivated by prejudice on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation. Back then, Blue only said, “We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case.” But as then-U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina Ripley Rand recently toldthe New York Times, the lack of one clear motive—a bias or a squabble over a parking spot, for example—made it difficult to attach a hate crime law to the case.

Rand was also surprised, he said, to hear that the families were still waiting for recognition that the three victims were killed in an incident motivated by hate.