A person holds a flag during a rally at City Hall, Tuesday, May 20, 2014, in Philadelphia, Pa.
Matt Slocum/AP

Pennsylvania has bad hate crime laws, but good Internet sleuths

Updated

An assistant basketball coach at a Catholic high school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, has resigned over his alleged involvement in a recent attack against a Philadelphia gay couple, an incident which is raising eyebrows over the state’s hate crime laws and the role Internet sleuths should play in police investigations.

The coach, identified by the Philadelphia Daily News as 25-year-old Fran McGlinn, was allegedly part of a group of well-dressed twenty-somethings who got into a fight with two men, both in their late twenties, on the streets of Philadelphia’s hip Center City neighborhood. According to the victims, members of the group hurled gay slurs at them before beating them up. One of the men was treated for broken bones in the face and had to have his jaw wired shut, police said.

Shortly after the attack, police posted surveillance video to the department’s social media accounts, calling for help in identifying men and women walking near the crime site. A Twitter user soon posted a photo he’d received from “a friend of a friend of a friend” of what appeared to be the same group at a local restaurant. Others quickly identified the eatery as La Viola on 16th St., and another Twitter user turned to Facebook’s Graph Search to see who had recently checked in. Within hours after police first posted the surveillance video, lawyers for people in the group of suspects began coming forward to law enforcement, prompting Joseph Murray of the Philadelphia Police Department to tweet these messages:

No arrests have yet been made, but a number of people involved in the incident have participated in interviews, Lt. John Stanford, commander of the Philadelphia Police Department’s public affairs unit, told msnbc. He added that detectives were wrapping up the investigation, expecting them to make arrests in the next few days.

“There are a number of lives that have been affected by this incident; some are looking at jail time,” said Stanford. “We want to make sure we get it right across the board for everyone involved.”

Saying in a statement Thursday that violence is “inexcusable and alien to what it means to be a Christian,” the Archbishop Charles Chaput announced that the assistant basketball coach, whom he did not name, had resigned from Archbishop Wood High School, approximately 30 miles north of where the incident took place. It marks the first in what will likely be a long list of consequences related to the crime.

The attack took place last week on September 11, shocking the local LGBT community and igniting a conversation about both crowd-sourced investigations and the state’s hate crime statute, which does not include specific protections based on sexual orientation or gender identity. That means that anyone arrested in this case could not be charged with having violated Pennsylvania’s ethnic intimidation (a.k.a. “hate crime”) law.

Philadelphia City Councilman Kim Kenney sent a letter on Wednesday to the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, asking for charges to be brought under the federal hate crimes statute, which does include offenses motivated by anti-gay biases. LGBT advocates are also hoping the incident spurs lawmakers to pass legislation pending in both the state House and Senate to expand hate crime protections.

“This is a reminder once more that as advanced as we think we are and as far as we think we’ve gone, we still haven’t gone far enough,” said Ted Martin, executive director of Equality PA, to msnbc. “We’re hoping it educates many people, especially the leadership, who can move this legislation forward.”

Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast that does not have specific hate crime or anti-discrimination protections based on sexual orientation, said Martin. It was also the last state in the Northeast to embrace same-sex nuptials, after a federal judge struck down an 18-year-old law in May that defined marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. Given this context, Martin said, it’s not entirely “shocking” that gay-bashing still happens, even in a city as LGBT-friendly as Philadelphia.

“Pennsylvania remains a state where it’s still legal to get fired for being gay,” said Martin. “All you need to do is go outside the borders of Philadelphia to encounter that kind of discrimination.”

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But while the attack is exposing gaps in Pennsylvania’s LGBT rights record, it’s also setting an example in how law enforcement can utilize social media to catch criminals. Since 2010, the Philadelphia Police Department has trained close to 100 detectives on retrieving video through surveillance systems, Lt. Stanford said. Those videos are then posted across the department’s online platforms, which today include a website, Twitter account, Facebook page, YouTube channel, and Instagram profile. The department also has a social media manager who trains about 60 people “ranging from police officers all the way up to our commissioner,” said Stanford.

“I don’t want to say it in an arrogant way,” he joked, unwilling to say whether the Philadelphia Police were leading the pack in this area.

“We had a number of departments reach out to us and look to our guidance as to how to start their [social media] programs, and we had some larger departments reach out to us about how to enhance their programs,” Stanford continued. “We’re all in the same business, and if we see something that works in Philly, we’re going to share that with another city.”

Online sleuthing doesn’t have a perfect track record, however, and can quickly devolve into a forum for racist, chaotic, and ultimately incorrect finger-pointing. If what happened in Philadelphia represents the model student, for example, then surely the Boston bombing aftermath could play the part of the slacker. In that instance, social media users flooded communities on Reddit, 4Chan, Facebook, and Twitter with what they saw as clues to the bombers’ identities. After naming the wrong man, a 22-year-old Brown University student who ended up being found dead, Reddit users apologized.

Bill Jensen, a crime journalist and expert on the internet detective phenomenon, calls this effect the “what about this guy” scenario.

“That’s the downfall,” said Jensen to msnbc. “It’s a pitchfork campaign of people eventually trying to wreck somebody’s life by getting them involved in something they might not be involved in.”

In the case of the Boston bombing, said Jensen, misidentifying the suspect ended up negating all the impressive work that social media users were able to accomplish, including finding the clearest photo of “suspect number 2,” now identified as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, leaving the scene.

“That was good work,” said Jensen. “But any time you start naming people, that’s a bad thing.”

As aggressive as digital detectives were in tracking down the group allegedly involved in last week’s Philadelphia attack, they never named names online. Once the Twitter user, FanSince09, said he’d ID’d people at La Viola, police took it from there:

It’s that kind of coordination, said Jensen, “the needs to happen more often if crowd-sourcing crime is going to work.”

Gay Rights

Pennsylvania has bad hate crime laws, but good Internet sleuths

Updated