WASHINGTON, December 24, 2014 – Chicopee, Mass., police have filed a criminal complaint against a 27-year-old man for four words on his Facebook page.
Charles “Charlie” DiRosa quoted Ismaaiyl Brinsley’s Instagram comment, “I’m putting wings on pigs today” on his Facebook page, writing simply, “put wings on pigs.” Brinsley made the comment before he shot and killed New York police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu on Saturday.
A Chicopee police officer wrote on the department’s Facebook page, “After the events of the past few days, the PD took this threat very seriously.” Chicopee PD spokesman Michael Wilk said that, “In the eyes of every police officer in America today, ‘putting wings on pigs’ is a threat.”
The police learned about DiRosa’s Facebook post when a link to it was sent to them anonymously. The department issued a show-cause complaint and sent an advisory to other Massachusetts law enforcement offices. The advisory includes DiRosa’s picture, says that he is “currently on probation,” and warns officers “to use extreme caution” in dealing with him.
Police have been under strong scrutiny in the news media and on social media this year. Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and John Crawford, all unarmed and all black, were shot by white police officers. Garner was filmed pleading for his life while in a police chokehold; Rice, 12 years old, was shot by police while he played with a toy gun in a park, within two seconds of their arrival; Crawford was shot in a Walmart as he chatted on his phone, swinging a bb rifle that he picked up from a Walmart shelf. In none of these cases were the police indicted.
In the wake of these events, there have been protests in several cities, and sporadic, low-level violence against police. The shootings of the New York officers suddenly put police critics on the defensive, with supporters arguing that statements by New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and others made the murdered officers into targets.
The criticism of police has crossed the political divide, with conservatives concerned that police forces are over militarized and prone to use military tactics and high levels of violence – “shock and awe” tactics against civilians in order to minimize threats to the officers themselves.
But it is also widely recognized that some of America’s most dangerous cities would be much worse without the efforts of the police. We want the police to be polite and careful when dealing with us, but want them to be thorough and unbending in dealing with threats to us.
DiRosa’s comments were probably not meant as a complement to the police, but the response to them raises concerns. In August, a man was charged with making terroristic threats when he posted the words to a song by Exodus to his Facebook page. The charges were dropped after the ACLU came to his defense and argued that this was a First Amendment case, but Exodus guitar player Gary Holt raised an excellent point:
“When we start to overreact to things like lyrics by any band, including Exodus, and start arresting people, we are caving in to paranoia and are well on our way to becoming an Orwellian society.”
What constitutes a credible threat? The First Amendment doesn’t exist to protect the pledge of allegiance or letters thanking the police and city council for their fine work. It exists to protect speech that majorities or vocal minorities would like to shut down.
DiRosa’s comments are obnoxious, and if he were to have killed a police officer, we would look back at them and ask why no one did anything to stop him given the threat. But that’s retrospective, not prospective. Sometimes a threat isn’t clear until it’s been carried out. If it isn’t clear beforehand, we should be very careful about prosecuting it.