GLAA Testimony on offensive email transmissions within the MPD
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GLAA Testimony on offensive email transmissions within the MPD

Delivered before the Committee on the Judiciary and the
Subcommittee on Human Rights, Latino Affairs and Property Management

P.O. Box 75265
Washington, D.C. 20013

APRIL 24, 2001

Councilmember Patterson, Councilmember Graham, and Fellow Citizens:

Good evening. My name is Craig Howell. I am a former President of the Gay and Lesbian Activists Alliance of Washington (GLAA), the oldest continuously active gay and lesbian rights organization in the country. Last week we celebrated our 30th Anniversary. I am pleased to be speaking on behalf of GLAA at this evening's unusual joint public oversight hearing.

We are not surprised by the recent revelation of the swarms of homophobic, racist, sexist, and other kinds of slurs within official email transmissions by members of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). We are, however, surprised that so many other people were surprised, apparently including most of the top leadership of the Department itself. One obvious lesson is never let yourself be fooled by your own press releases.

We appreciate that the leadership of the MPD sincerely wants to eliminate any signs of homophobia and other kinds of bigotry within the ranks of their Department. Those of us of a certain age in the activist community can remember only too vividly when the MPD's leaders were overtly anti-gay and made few if any attempts to hide their prejudices. What a staggering improvement it is to have a Chief now like Chief Ramsey, who has taken the initiative to have his officers go through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to learn how police powers can be perverted to persecute targeted minorities. GLAA spearheaded the effort to ensure this marvelous Museum would include the story of the gay victims of Nazi persecution, and we hope this is but one of many stories our police will take to heart.

But we have seen too much evidence that the kind of enlightened professionalism now routinely voiced by MPD's chiefs does not always filter down to the rank and file. As reprehensible as written or verbal anti-gay slurs are to us, even more worrisome is that outbursts of homophobic behavior by MPD officers are seldom if ever punished and are in fact too often winked at, tolerated, or otherwise condoned by Department managers and supervisors.

A few weeks ago, the Mayor's Liaison to the Gay and Lesbian Community, our good friend (and longtime GLAA member) Philip Pannell, convened a meeting of the District's gay and lesbian business leaders. He got an earful of complaints from around the room about incident after incident where police officers failed to respond to their requests for assistance in a timely fashion and where officers were openly abusive of the gay and lesbian patrons of these businesses. Many of these complaints originated on the strip along O Street SE.

Here I must interject: We told you so. When Police Chief Ramsey asked the Council to pass legislation forbidding moonlighting by off-duty MPD officers at ABC-licensed or sexually-oriented establishments, we protested that this move would jeopardize the safety of the O Street patrons. Chief Ramsey ignored us and the Council ignored us, and now we in the gay community are paying the price for your folly. A climate of confrontation has developed because of this moonlighting ban, encouraging the acting-out of anti-gay prejudices by some MPD officers. We urge a speedy repeal of this ill-considered legislation. Meanwhile, none of the culprits who have been harassing gay patrons or who have been sluggish in providing requested assistance from our business owners has suffered any consequences.

The Mayor himself heard a round of similar complaints about inappropriate police behavior during his April 17 Town Meeting with the gay and lesbian community. For example, one woman witnessed an incident a couple of weeks earlier where several police officers beat up a customer outside the Delta Elite, a Brookland bar popular with African American Lesbians. Another person alleged that the police made several unwarranted raids last May against clubs and bars patronized by participants in the annual Black Pride celebration. Chief Ramsey promised to investigate these incidents, and we will be watching to make sure his promises are kept. But we must add our regret that the Mayor's office failed to invite the Office of Citizen Complaint Review (OCCR) to participate in this Town Meeting. The OCCR will no doubt be receiving and investigating a number of citizen complaints where these email messages will play a vital role, and its leaders should have been present on that occasion to explain how to file complaints with the OCCR.

We believe the Department should give priority to identifying and punishing officers guilty of anti-gay behavior, and should react to the disclosure of the offensive e-mails as opportunities to forestall future incidents.

In general, we believe that the approach advanced by the ACLU/National Capital Area is correct. Mere speech, however obnoxious, within the Department should not be sufficient grounds for dismissal. We seriously doubt that homophobic and other kinds of slurs within the MPD only started with the advent of email; such comments were no doubt quite common before then. The difference now is that we have hard evidence of their existence. Anti-gay comments have been voiced for decades within the Department, and we defy anyone to find evidence that anyone was ever disciplined in any way for such bigoted expressions. Homophobia has been tolerated de facto all these years; the challenge, now that the scales have fallen from the eyes of the Department's top leadership, is to root it out.

Part of the answer has to be a preventive strategy. In this connection we can not over-emphasize the need for the Department to continue and intensify the kind of training provided in recent years by Ms. Karen Pettapiece of Gay Men and Lesbians Opposing Violence (GLOV). Ms. Pettapiece, an open lesbian, had been giving lessons in dealing with our community to both veteran officers and to rookies and transfers until a couple of years ago. Since then, Chief Ramsey has confined her to dealing with the rookies and transfers, and has turned over the community relations training of veterans to outside contractors; ultimately, the Chief wants all diversity training to be conducted in-house. The Chief has been fooling himself, and we hope he now realizes his mistake. It is extremely important that this kind of training comes from an openly gay man or woman; it is too much to expect a Department riddled with prejudice to lift itself up by its own bootstraps.

GLAA presented Ms. Pettapiece with our Distinguished Service Award at last week's 30th Anniversary Reception, and she had high praise for the sensitivity and receptiveness of most of the officers she's been training. Much of their gratitude is specifically because she is an open Lesbian, and these officers needed to raise questions that only such a person could answer. But there have also been incidents in these training sessions where overtly hostile attacks have been made against her, and seldom, if ever, do the senior MPD officials present speak up and assert that such attitudes and behavior are utterly unacceptable. To the contrary: Ms. Pettapiece reports that "the vast majority of the truly homophobic words I've heard have come from supervisors." This kind of unpunished, open anti-gay hostility from the higher-ups sends a message to the others at these training sessions that homophobia is condoned if not encouraged within our Metropolitan Police Department.

We are cautious about the impression left more than once by Chief Ramsey that diversity training should be used as a means of punishment for officers who have used anti-gay slurs in their emails. But any officer who has expressed bigotry of any sort in their emails should understand that these messages can and will be used as evidence in the course of investigating citizen complaints of prejudiced behavior, whether filed with the Department or with the OCCR. These messages may also be legitimately used to establish whether supervisors have been guilty of creating a hostile work environment for gay and lesbian police officers, whether actively by using anti-gay slurs themselves or passively by tolerating such expressions among their subordinates and ignoring complaints about anti-gay abuse.

We are pleased that Chief Ramsey has come to realize that he can not escape the problems revealed by the offensive e-mails merely by threatening to dismiss officers en masse. During his press conference following his most recent meeting with the NAACP Criminal Justice Task Force (of which GLAA is an active participant), the Chief specifically stated, when asked about the punishments to be handed down: "This is not one size fits all." Mere profanity would not result in dismissal, for example. Statements of bias where there was evidence of illegal profiling would not be treated the same as cases where there is no such evidence. In those cases where emails may point to criminal activity other than profiling, the Department will pursue criminal charges. So there will be a range of disciplinary actions, and we find the Chief's appreciation of the nuances of these individual cases encouraging.

We are eager to work with the Chief to help ensure that his short-term house cleaning is followed by long-term steps to overhaul the police culture that facilitates profiling and other discriminatory behavior by our police. Building a police force that respects the people it is sworn to serve -- rather than viewing them as adversaries -- will take persistence and a variety of measures ranging from training to supervision and appropriate consequences for misbehavior. Only when abusive officers know they will be punished for mistreating citizens, whether by the OCCR or by the Department, can we expect their behavior to improve.

As an initial step towards reforming the police culture, Ms. Pettapiece has reaffirmed that she is ready and eager to resume GLOV's training of the veteran officers.

Thank you. I would be glad to answer any questions you may have.

Summary of Additional Commentary by Mr. Howell

Mr. Howell praised the active participation of both the Office of Citizen Complaint Review and the Office of Human Rights in the ongoing investigations, noting that GLAA has been a strong supporter of both agencies. He thanked Councilmember Patterson for her critical role in reestablishing OHR as an independent office and praised OHR Director Charles Holman III for providing the kind of leadership GLAA envisioned when we called for this move, leadership sorely missed during the 1990's when it was submerged into another Department. Mr. Holman is embracing his role as the "Conscience of the Administration" in this endeavor as elsewhere.

During his testimony, Chief Ramsey noted that he had met with OHR Director Holman and encouraged him to provide an investigator who would work with the MPD's own staff on the email cases. Mr. Holman confirmed this arrangement during his testimony in response to questions from Councilmember Graham and added the OHR investigator would be working on a day-to-day basis with the MPD on this project. Mr. Graham suggested that the police department ought to provide some budgetary support for this OHR investigator. Mr. Howell commended Mr. Graham's suggestion, adding that Mr. Holman's laudable efforts to reduce OHR's staggering caseload should not be delayed by his willingness to help out the MPD. Mr. Graham had also noted that the Department of Justice's assistance to MPD would presumably be confined to the kinds of discrimination covered by federal laws, which do not protect lesbians and gay men, so OHR's broader perspectives and mandate are all the more crucial.

Mr. Howell agreed with Chief Ramsey's assessment that the vast majority of the members of the Metropolitan Police Department are not racists, sexist, or homophobic. But at the same time, those members of the department who are openly homophobic in words or actions are getting away with it without consequences, reflecting a lack of commitment by many MPD supervisors to equal treatment for lesbians and gay men. Since the Chief had noted in his testimony that the audit of emails had not yet been extended to the desktop computers of the supervisors, Mr. Howell urged that the audit expand as soon as possible to include them, because much of the problem with homophobia within the MPD rests in the hands of the supervisors.

Mr. Howell commented that the disclosure of the problematic emails represents the "tip of the iceberg" when it comes to understanding the problem of homophobia within the Metropolitan Police Department.

Councilmember Graham asked Mr. Howell whether we were satisfied with the communications we've been having with Chief Ramsey since the start of the present controversy. Mr. Howell noted that the Chief had called GLAA VP Rick Rosendall before the story broke and pledged to do his utmost to conduct a thorough investigation. We have met with the Chief since then as part of the NAACP Criminal Justice Task Force, and we had been meeting with the Chief routinely anyway long before now.

Councilmember Patterson asserted she did not question the wisdom of the Council's anti-moonlighting ban, and said the problems we reported on O Street SE could be resolved through diligent Council oversight.

Asked whether the actual texts of the offensive emails should be made public, Mr. Howell replied that this was an issue GLAA had not yet addressed. He ventured that the guidelines offered by the ACLU for releasing texts without names of senders or recipients, so as to protect the due process rights of those who may be accused of wrongdoing, look like they strike an appropriate balance.

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