A collage of some gifs posted by the Twitter user @CPD496 in response to reports of violence against people of color and protesters.

Social media posts seemingly made by a Cambridge Police Department lieutenant were called “deeply disturbing” by department officials on Friday, and a comprehensive staff investigation was announced to confirm their origin and to see if they violated department codes.

The @CPD496 Twitter account was discovered to have been deleted Friday after posts from it were shown to police.

If its investigation finds there’s been a violation, the department will seek to “impose strict discipline” against the officer, according to a Friday statement. The specifics of police discipline are not shared with the public.

Social media has ushered in more scrutiny for police, right down to individual officers – even in Cambridge, where there have been no viral videos of fatal incidents or pushback during peaceful protests.

The city has seen calls for accountability in May, after a police superintendent’s accidental use of his department’s Twitter account revealed him calling a politician “another liberal fucking jerk”; in July, when the union representing Cambridge rank and file officers warned residents to expect a “purge” if policing reforms were enacted; and in August, when a resident told city councillors about encountering an officer who resisted wearing a mask correctly in crowded Central Square by saying “we don’t live in a Communist country yet.”

The photo on the @CPD496 Twitter account.

This week, a resident presented examples from social media at odds with popular opinion in a broadly progressive city that appear to have been made by Lt. Shawn Lynch, of Somerville. He is a 20-year veteran of the Cambridge Police Department, according to a LinkedIn page. He rose to patrol sergeant in 2015 and was promoted in 2018 via the civil service system to his current rank.

Lynch has been off-duty since May due to unrelated matters, according to the CPD statement.

“As far as I can tell this is an officer, recently promoted to a leadership role, who represents the worst of policing in the U.S., and who is very public about his opinions,” said the resident who discovered the Twitter account. “We keep hearing from some on the City Council, from the police department spokesperson and leadership and from the police union that our police department is somehow different and better than police departments elsewhere in the country.”

Gifs cheer violence

In the @CPD496 tweets, Democrats are “American Jihadists,” the tweeter tells Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone that Black Lives Matter is “a Marxist organization whose members openly call for the murder of law enforcement officers” and, seeing a question about what charges might be leveled against protesters snatched into unmarked vans off the streets of Portland, Oregon, quips, “Don’t care.” To U.S. Rep. Ayanna Presley’s celebration of an alopecia awareness day, The account responded that with or without hair she was “ugly,” which “comes from the inside.”

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It sent gifs of excited clapping in response to a man driving a car at high speed into a crowd of people in Seattle in July, and for Buffalo, New York, police shattering the skull of a 75-year-old man trying to ask them a question during a protest; and of a popcorn-munching Jerry Seinfeld saying an ironic “That’s a shame” in response to last month’s Kenosha, Wisconsin, police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man, seven times in the back.

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His retweets include comments that “the media is truly the enemy of the people” and Black Lives Matter is “the most dangerous, violent and vile hate group in America. There is no white supremacist group that even gets close to BLM in terms of the threat it poses to human life.”

In an echo of the resident’s report of the Central Square officer who resisted wearing a mask correctly, in a Facebook post last month Lynch refers to coronavirus concerns as a “shamdemic.”

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“There’s years of this sort of thing,” said the resident, who requested anonymity because he doesn’t “really think this story is about me.”

Trust in officers “imperative”

The Friday police department statement said that as a general matter, the city does not monitor employees’ private social media outside of work and recognizes that employees have a right to free speech under the First Amendment. But the department “will not tolerate statements that are inflammatory, discriminatory and/or disrespectful to any individuals, races or ethnicities that are linked in any way to an officer’s employment as a Cambridge police officer,” it said.

The department was asked how residents who are Democrats or members of Black Lives Matter or even of the media could trust the protection of an officer who believed they were “Jihadists” and “the most dangerous, violent and vile hate group in America” and “the enemy of the people” – or in the officer’s ability to reasonably assess a situation or investigate an incident.

“It is imperative that the community can rely upon and have the utmost confidence in the commitment of all Cambridge Police Department officers to provide the highest level of public safety services to all … regardless of race or political affiliation,” the statement said. “Statements such as those alleged to have been made violate the public trust that the department has rigorously taken pride in building, which can cause immeasurable damage to that trust, and they will not be tolerated.”

Resurfacing 23-year-old discipline

The resident isn’t alone in worrying about who’s policing the streets and people of Cambridge. In May, after Cambridge Police Superintendent Jack Albert, a 32-year-member of the department, apologized for his errant political tweet, another anonymous person sent a letter addressed to all city councillors, the city manager and deputy city manager about an incident nearly a quarter-century earlier. It said correctly that Albert was disciplined for getting into a public altercation with a clerk named Barbara Myette, though details differed with the facts laid out in a settlement agreement for discipline from November 1997. A redacted version of the report, received in July, showed that Albert was accused of poking Myette twice in the left arm, raising bruises.

An investigation by then Sgt. Chris Burke substantiated an allegation of assault and battery and concluded that Albert’s behavior was “rude and discourteous … unnecessary and unprofessional.”

According to a member of the force at the time, “I would wager there’s nothing else in the record” like this incident, which “was out of character.” Similar defenses were spoken to the city councillors concerned about Albert’s tweet; to the letter-writer, the “shame and disgrace” of the two incidents decades apart are linked.

Questions “bad apples theory”

Councillor Quinton Zondervan, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said Friday that he was concerned as well by recent incidents. He called the @CPD496 posts “disturbing but not entirely unexpected.”

“We have to be careful when we publicize these stories about individuals who are clearly expressing bias or problematic viewpoints – because it’s a problem, but it’s not the whole problem,” Zondervan said.

Stories about individual officers who may face discipline fall into a “bad apples theory” that Zondervan said was “not at all correct.” Instead, he feels there’s a problem with how policing is done in the United States overall. As a councillor, he has sponsored and supported orders that would reimagine policing, redirecting funds to other city agencies that would perform certain of the same functions without being armed. He pointed to an incident in July where a group of police gathered to stop a young man from seeing his 50-year-old mother after she died suddenly. “There’s no reason to have our police officers respond to that kind of situation,” he said, “and that’s the vast majority of calls, according to the police themselves.”

A “mental health first responders” proposal looks to be moving forward as the council resumes meeting after a summer break, and a proposal to have civilians take over traffic stops may also be headed to committee for more discussion, Zondervan said.

In Cambridge, crime has been low for several year. Police say the 2,257 serious crimes reported in 2019 declined 5 percent versus 2018 and represented the lowest total of index crimes reported to the FBI since Congress enacted the Omnibus Crime Control Act in 1968. Last year was also the sixth consecutive year in which the crime index total has remained below 3,000 incidents in Cambridge.

Police commissioner’s testimony

Testimony to the City Council in the past few months have shown that residents feel they are still targeted and treated differently because of the color of their skin. But officials do say Cambridge’s police force is different from many nationwide, where hostility and sometimes fatal violence against people of color is a daily occurrence.

Bard – who is black – said it was why he came to work here from Philadelphia. “For many years, I’ve taken care to enact policies that value the sanctity of human life above all else, that eliminate bias, that denounce and eliminate police brutality, that improve conditions for marginalized minority populations. That’s what made the idea of running this department so attractive to me, because Cambridge PD was aggressive in its approach to progressiveness and its commitment to reform,” Bard told councillors June 9. “As an individual and as a police department, we felt these things were important long before the murder of George Floyd.”

“As a department, we’ve made a concerted effort to affect change in policy, practice and training designed to further reform. With a firm understanding that this institution and all American institutions are undergirded by racism, our policies have been a result of thoughtful, humanistic considerations that moved us from a legal central approach to policing where we gather authority through statutes and ordinances to a community policing philosophy, where we gather authority from the community in terms of legitimacy,” Bard said.

“Racist, ignorant and inflammatory”

Niko Emack, a Cambridge journalist, legislative aide for councillor Marc McGovern and leader with the group My Brother’s Keeper, said Friday that the contrast between that rhetoric and recurring issues with officers suggested the need for a “serious conversation around the culture of policing in this country and in our community.”

“I’m always being told that the Cambridge Police Department is very progressive, and for the most part, I’d have to agree. But I also have to ask, what are we comparing it to, the NYPD?” said Emack, who helped organize a Black Lives Matter rally in June with the city’s police department. Bard was a speaker.

“The national conversation around police reform is often rejected in Cambridge on the grounds that it doesn’t apply to our department, and yet here we are again – for the third time since the death of George Floyd – condemning an officer’s racist, ignorant and inflammatory remarks on social media,” Emack said. “I’m embarrassed to see this kind of language coming from an officer, let alone a lieutenant, that represents the city of Cambridge. If this is the mindset in which he sees the world, and takes with him on the job, he has no business serving our community.”

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