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D.C. Police Probe Blue E-Mail

Racist, Vulgar Messages Sent on Patrol Car Computers

By Arthur Santana and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 28, 2001; Page A01

D.C. police officers have sent each other hundreds of racist, vulgar and homophobic messages on their patrol car computers, and the department is investigating, top officials said yesterday.

The messages "seemed to be a potpourri of hate where apparently black officers were saying negative things against white officers and white against black," Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer said.

He said the communications included almost every kind of "idiotic, hateful, spiteful comment" and clearly indicated a problem that calls for drastic action.

Chief Charles H. Ramsey said the police internal affairs unit is investigating the messages. He said he also has notified the U.S. Justice Department about the possibility that they indicate the presence of racial profiling in the department.

"There were comments in there about, 'Let's go punch this person,' or, 'Let's go stop this person,' based on their race or gender or sexual orientation," Gainer said.

The objectionable messages were found among about 4 million computer communications sent over a one-year period. They were accessed by officials at Ramsey's behest to determine how the computers were being used.

The number of offensive messages was not clear last night, but Gainer said there were "hundreds and hundreds of them." He said they had been sent by as much as 10 percent of the 3,600-member force.

"I'm sickened that this type of language and behavior has infected our department," Gainer said. "They embarrassed themselves, insulted this department and sullied our profession. That type of conduct . . . will not be tolerated in this agency."

Gainer said several messages include the "the F-word [and] the N-word."

Also used, Gainer said, were " 'whitey' [and] almost every derogatory term you can come up with for the race or gender of a person."

Ramsey said many of those messages including the N-word were sent by black officers about other black officers, but Gainer said the word is nonetheless objectionable and "doesn't belong in our police department."

Based on preliminary analysis of the objectionable messages, Gainer said vulgarity was the most common offense. He also said there was considerable banter about sexual relations. Many derogatory comments were about citizens, he said.

Gainer said most officers in the department do not share the racist attitudes.

But, he said, "there appear to be significant numbers of people who are either ignorant or racist or homophobic or a terrible combination of all three."

Of the 4 million messages sent via computer, three-quarters were simple requests for license checks and similar information, police said.

Officials said car-to-car messaging was intended to reduce traffic on police radio channels. The computers warn officers that their transmissions are accessible by their superiors. The search of the messages included looking for certain "keywords," officials said.

Gainer said the department condemns the objectionable messages. "We're reinforcing what our policy is and what our core business is -- and that's to help and not hurt people," he said.

Gainer said the investigation could take as long as a month. He said it is not clear what action might be taken against those found to have sent offensive messages. Penalties could include dismissal, officials said.

"I'm going to take very harsh action," Ramsey said. "There is absolutely no room for that kind of behavior in our department."

Sgt. G.G. Neill, chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police, said the messages were unprofessional but that department policy had been unclear and that officers shouldn't be suspended or discharged.

"I think it's just a lack of proper training for officers and an understanding that the communications are public record," Neill said. "I'm sure if officers realized the communications were in the public review, they wouldn't have said what they said."

Deputy Mayor Margret Nedelkoff Kellems said the mayor's office approves the chief's position that "this is intolerable and unacceptable." One police sergeant, who spoke on condition that he not be identified, called the messages unprofessional. He said to the senders, "We don't need you on the department."

D.C. Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) called for action. Racist remarks and profanity, he said, "shouldn't be happening."

Chief Ramsey said, "I thought we [Americans] had come a little further than this."

Staff writer Martin Weil contributed to this report.

2001 The Washington Post Company

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