- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2001

Federal authorities are joining an internal District of Columbia police investigation of hundreds of racist and sexist electronic messages sent among nearly 350 police officers, focusing on possible criminal activity and civil rights violations.

The civil rights divisions of the Justice Department and FBI's Washington Field Office will help the Metropolitan Police Department determine if the officers' comments amount to illegal activity, said Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer.

The federal agencies became involved yesterday as D.C. leaders unleashed a torrent of condemnation against the messages.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams backed Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey's handling of the case, saying the comments were "offensive and stupid."

An audit of about 4 million electronic messages sent among officers on mobile data terminals in their patrol cars found hundreds of messages with racist, sexist and vulgar language.

Black, white and Hispanic officers used inappropriate comments toward minorities, women and homosexuals, police officials said.

The investigation is expected to be completed in 30 days.

The FBI "is a partner with us on the criminal implications," Chief Gainer said. For example, comments about assaulting or harassing persons because of their race, "all of that, on its face, could be criminal," he said.

Investigators are beginning the lengthy process of pulling files, incident reports and complaints about officers who used racist language. "There will be a lot of cross-checking," Chief Gainer said.

The chief said the FBI has jurisdiction because "there is a federal impact" in that the comments could correspond to police action that violated a person's civil rights.

A spokesman for the FBI's Washington Field Office said he was not aware of involvement by his agency's civil rights division.

The content of the electronic messages, which senior police officials discovered last week, could spark a probe into whether officers engage in racial profiling, Chief Gainer and other officials said.

"The Justice Department's civil rights division clearly has looked at many departments across the United States where there have been allegations of racial profiling," Chief Gainer said. "There's no reason to believe that since the issue has raised its ugly head in the District, they would also not want to be involved with this."

The Justice Department will "do its own, independent analysis … and likely make its own conclusions," Chief Gainer said.

"We'll keep them fully apprised of where we are in the investigation," he continued. "I expect they'll be talking to us about best practices, how do you prevent this and how do you respond to this?"

Margret Kellems, deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said discovering the messages "has given us concrete evidence of what we are dealing with."

"There [are] indications this is a big problem, and we'll do what we have to do to correct it," she said.

The message's language clearly is inappropriate, but it's up to the Justice Department to determine if it meets the legal definition of racial profiling, Mrs. Kellems said.

"Whether it meets a legal standard or not, we take it just as seriously," she said. "We don't want the conduct or attitudes to continue. It is completely intolerable."

Sgt. Gerald G. Neill, head of the police union, said, "We don't condone racism and racial profiling."

"We believe the officers out there on the street do a good job 99 percent of them," said Sgt. Neill, president of the Fraternal Order of Police chapter. "If there's a few officers who did this … the department will deal with them."

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson, Ward 3 Democrat and chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said, "There is no place in this government for those who espouse or display hate."

Council member Harold Brazil, at-large Democrat, said the messages are "a manifestation of deeper racial problems within the department."

"I think it points to some real racial problems," Mr. Brazil said. "This chief really needs to try to find some tools and some ways of getting at that problem."

U.S. Rep. Constance A. Morella, Maryland Republican and chairman of the House Government Reform subcommittee on the District, said she was "infuriated" at hearing about D.C. police dashing off vulgar e-mail messages.

Mrs. Morella said she would consider hearings on the e-mail messages after Chief Ramsey completes his investigation, adding that she thinks officers probably will be fired over this.

• Matthew Cella and Daniel F. Drummond contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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