Activists Find Chief Suddenly Welcoming
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  • Activists Find Chief Suddenly Welcoming

    Ramsey Grants Talks As E-Mail Investigation Reveals Police Biases

    By Petula Dvorak
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    The Washington Post
    Wednesday, April 4, 2001; Page B04

    The members of the delegation from the New Black Panther Party thrust their fists into the air, shouted, "Black Power!" and marched in lockstep up the stairs outside D.C. police headquarters for their appointment with D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey.

    They had come to collect apologies -- something that Ramsey has been doling out generously since last week, when D.C. police announced that a review of e-mails sent on patrol car computers over a year's time found hundreds of messages in which officers made racist, sexist and homophobic comments about private citizens and each other.

    "People viewed us as being extreme," said local Black Panther leader Malik Shabazz, who was accompanied by six other party members on yesterday's visit. "But last week, it became quite clear that there's a serious problem with racism in the D.C. police department."

    After the group passed through a security system -- emptying all the pockets in their cargo pants and field jackets and removing their mirrored, wrap-around sunglasses -- they resumed marching toward Ramsey's office. He greeted them by shaking each one's hand effusively.

    Ramsey has had several such meetings with activists in the past week, listening to their warnings that the offensive e-mails reflect the tensions in a police department that is two-thirds black but deeply divided along the lines of race, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

    The groups to which Ramsey has granted an audience say they are getting his attention as never before.

    "We don't know if he's been pushed or if he was pulled, but it appears that this situation has rocked Chief Ramsey to the core," said Johnnie Barnes, executive director of the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who met with Ramsey last week to discuss concerns about racial profiling.

    Mark Thompson, head of the D.C. branch of the NAACP, said Ramsey has agreed to a one-day retreat with NAACP members to discuss the need for more sensitivity training of police officers and to establish the protocol for collecting data on racial profiling.

    Representatives from the Gay and Lesbian Activist Alliance also met with Ramsey last week.

    Before the revelations about the police e-mails, Ramsey gave only perfunctory attention to warnings about racist and homophobic attitudes in the department, said Luis Cardona, a member of the D.C. Latino Police Task Force who teaches a diversity and sensitivity class at the police academy.

    "It felt like everything I said went in one of Ramsey's ears and out the other," Cardona said.

    Ramsey acknowledged yesterday that he hadn't heeded such warnings. "I was wrong," he said. "Shame on me for thinking we didn't have the problems like other departments have."

    The Black Panther Party members, who met with Ramsey behind closed doors for about a half-hour, said they wanted to see some of the e-mails. Ramsey said police are trying to figure out what they can release to the public without compromising their ongoing investigation.

    The Black Panthers said they were pleased that Ramsey had acknowledged a problem with racism in the department. "Police Chief Ramsey has taken a spiritually correct position," Shabazz said.

    As they left the chief's quarters, Ramsey escorted the Panthers out, riding down the elevator with them. They chatted, strolled a bit. When they reached the ground floor, Ramsey shook Shabazz's hand one more time.

    "Now, I want us to keep in touch from now on," he said. "I mean it."

    2001 The Washington Post Company

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