D.C. Officers Upbraided Over E-Mails
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D.C. Officers Upbraided Over E-Mails

Racist, Vulgar Comments Raise Legal Issues for Department

By Arthur Santana and Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writers
The Washington Post
Thursday, March 29, 2001; Page B01

Elected officials from Capitol Hill to city hall chastised D.C. police officers yesterday for sending racist, vulgar and homophobic messages on their squad car computers over the last year, and legal experts said the e-mails could expose the department to lawsuits and provide fodder for criminal defense attorneys.

News of the officers' behavior surfaced on Tuesday as top D.C. police officials confirmed that they are reviewing hundreds of e-mails in which officers made negative comments about each other and about citizens. Officials said a cursory review of the messages shows that many officers used offensive language and some may have engaged in racial profiling of both black and white residents.

"It's stupid and offensive," said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D). He said sanctions "should include the full range of consequences," adding that the department should fire officers if necessary.

U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.), who chairs the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, also voiced concern about the revelations: "Anything that interferes with the ability of the Metropolitan Police Department to make the streets of our nation's capital safer for residents, commuters and tourists is not merely a local matter, but one that is of grave concern to Congress as well."

Police officials said the objectionable messages were found among about 4 million e-mails sent over a one-year period. Officials began looking at the messages three weeks ago at Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey's request to determine how the squad car computers were being used.

Executive Assistant Chief Terrance W. Gainer has said that as many as 10 percent of the department's 3,600 officers may have sent offensive messages.

Gainer said police internal affairs investigators will try to determine whether officers followed through on threatening remarks about individuals. He said they also will see whether there is any correlation between the content of an officer's e-mails and the complaints residents have filed against that officer.

Gainer said police officials intend to share the messages with the FBI and the Justice Department for possible investigation of federal civil rights violations.

Police officials said they will broadcast to every D.C. police officer this week a message from Ramsey reminding them of the proper use of the patrol car computers. They also said that Ramsey will distribute a memo titled "Zero tolerance for offensive and hateful speech."

Legal experts said yesterday that the e-mails may help criminal defense lawyers. To try to undermine the credibility of a particular officer testifying in a criminal case, they said, the defense might subpoena the officer's e-mails.

Specialists also said the messages could expose the police department to lawsuits by police employees alleging that they were subjected to a hostile work environment.

"I would be shocked if it is not the case that many supervisors saw these e-mails and didn't do anything about it," said Mark Dare, an employment lawyer in Falls Church.

Philip Eure, executive director of the Citizen Complaint Review Board, said the board plans to ask police for a compilation of the e-mails for use in its own investigations.

"Now, if we ask an officer if he has ever used racial slurs, we can ask for all the e-mails that officer has sent, and we will see evidence whether he has or not," Eure said.

Among those who reacted with anger to the news about the hateful e-mails were several rank-and-file D.C. police officers.

Officer Paul Regan, of the 6th District, said the squad car computer is a great tool that has been abused.

"You get a lot of guys using it to talk about girlfriends, and about other officers on the street, and using foul language," he said. "A lot of officers talk about their escapades the night before and gossip about the chief.

"When [the computers] came out, I knew this was going to happen. I knew someone was going to get caught. A lot of this stuff is what got the officers in Los Angeles in trouble with the Rodney King case."

Gainer said a warning to all officers notifying them that the transmissions were being monitored was posted a month ago -- even though the e-mails being reviewed go back to March of last year. Also, a printed message was sent to all officers on March 16, reminding them not to use "profanity, discuss non-police information, use slang terms or nicknames. All . . . communications shall be directly related to police business."

In Fairfax County, where police have had computers in cars since 1986, investigators from the police internal affairs unit routinely pull transcripts of computer message traffic every two or three weeks, said Capt. Jim Charron. He said the checks have not uncovered anything unusual or offensive.

Some police cars in Prince George's County have the computers, and internal investigators plan to monitor e-mails once the machines have been installed in all the cars, said police spokesman Royce D. Holloway.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles A. Moose said news of the D.C. police e-mail problem will act as reminder to his officers, who will be getting laptops in their cruisers starting this summer.

"I'm excited about us getting computers, but this just makes you sick to see this," Moose said. "It's got to serve as a lesson learned."

Staff writers Petula Dvorak, Phuong Ly, Jamie Stockwell, Robert E. Pierre, Josh White, Tom Jackman and Patricia Davis contributed to this report.

2001 The Washington Post Company


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