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A Thin Blue Line of Prejudice

Monday, March 27, 2006
Washington Post

FOR MONTHS, apparently, at least some of the police brass in
Montgomery County have known either specifically or
generally about racist, sexist and immigrant-bashing
comments on an online message board used exclusively by
county police. And for months, apparently, their response --
or rather, their non-response -- has been modeled after Sgt.
Schultz, the immortal bumbler of TV's "Hogan's Heroes": "I
know nothing! I see nothing! NOTHING!"

As reported by The Post's Ernesto Londoņo, the online
forum has become a free-for-all for boorish, intolerant and
malicious rantings. On this site, Hispanic immigrants have
been disparaged as "beaners," an African American
policewoman was termed a "ghetto officer" and a black
diversity trainer was threatened with violent injury. If the
county's police officers get this agitated while at their
computer keyboards, residents may wonder how they react when
dealing with minorities and immigrants in the flesh.

It was only after The Post exposed the tenor of some of the
online blather that the county police chief, J. Thomas
Manger, took the trouble to read the uncouth postings. Now
he says he is shocked, and he demands the message board be
shut down by the Fraternal Order of Police, the police
union, which runs the forum. So far, the FOP has refused.

We're sure that police supervisors are right when they say
the loudmouths who sound off on the message board are a
loutish minority, unrepresentative of a county force that is
generally professional, competent and courteous. In any
large organization -- there are 1,100-odd police officers on
the payroll in Montgomery -- the actions of a few can
tarnish the reputation of the many. And let's face it:
Police are paid to enforce the law, not stand as unblemished
exemplars of politically correct speech.

But intolerant, hateful officers are unlikely to be
effective, and they may actually subvert the department's
overall mission. The more police are seen as bigots, the
less cooperation they are likely to get from immigrants and
minorities. In a county as diverse as Montgomery, where
minorities will soon make up half the population, that's a
recipe for disaster.

The police department is within its rights to forbid
officers from posting on the message board while they're on
the job. But the underlying problem is not the forum; it is
the attitudes of those who are posting. Silencing
trash-talking officers won't make them suddenly sensitive.

Still, neither Chief Manger nor the police union should
stand pat. The chief needs to address the problems exposed
by the message board, whether by intensified training,
discipline or vigilance. Then there's the union, which in
the name of free speech refuses to censor the online forum
it controls or forbid anonymous postings. Can one therefore
assume that the union is unfazed by the evidence of racism,
sexism and nativism in its midst? Is the union willing to
tolerate obnoxious remarks -- and attitudes -- that tarnish
its own reputation and that of the thousands of officers it
represents? If not, some self-policing may be in order