Often police scandals involve the "blue wall of silence," but in Washington, D.C., police have been chatting too much.
A department audit of how officers use the computers installed in their patrol cars so they can communicate with one another without using the radio found that not only do police use vulgar language, but some express racist, sexist and homophobic sentiments, and talk about beating people up or getting drugs, police officials said.
"The one saving grace is it's not anywhere near all of us, but it is some of us," Executive Assistant Chief Terrence Gainer said. "A lot of it is whopping vulgar language and some people say, 'Well, that's just police,' but I don't think that's right."
Of the 4 million messages sent by the city's police officers in the last year, 3 million were routine police business — license or warrant checks, questions about leads and the like, Gainer said. Most of the remaining million were "legitimate conversations between officers," he said.
"But there were hundreds and hundreds that are vulgar, obscene, racist or homophobic, and that's too many," Gainer added.
Every time an officer turns on one of the computers or logs on, a window flashes on the screen saying that anything written and sent on the e-mail system can be seen by their superiors, and that the date, time, unit number and the name of the person who wrote it would all be recorded.
'We Can't Have That'
Sgt. G.G. Neil, the chairman of the Fraternal Order of Police, told the Washington Post he believes this is a training issue, and that officers were not properly informed that the e-mail messages were public record.
"It is not about could you be caught, it's about how you act in the first place," Gainer said. "The substantive issue is in this age do we still have people who are latent haters — white haters, black haters, homosexual haters? We can't have that."
District of Columbia Police Chief Charles Ramsey called the e-mails "some of the worst evidence of racism in the department."
The language used by some of the officers was so racist that the department has turned to the U.S. Justice Department seeking advice on whether there is evidence that some officers practice racial profiling. Gainer said the Justice Department has deferred to the police to conduct their own investigation.
The department's internal affairs division is looking into messages that appear to contain plots to beat people up or commit other crimes.
"They'll take the snippets that showed up in our searches, put them in context in terms of who said what to whom and what was going on at the time, match them against complaints against officers and see what we have," Gainer said.
The city's police force suffered a black eye earlier this year when three officers were accused of felonies in separate cases within a 10-day stretch. One was charged with dealing cocaine, another with stealing from a self-storage facility and a third with robbing prostitutes' customers.