Cartoon raises concerns of police Black officers to file complaint over display of slave ship in office

December 13, 1996|By Jill Hudson | Jill Hudson,SUN STAFF

A group of African-American police officers say they'll send a formal complaint by Monday to Howard County Police Chief James N. Robey over a slave-ship cartoon they called "offensive and insensitive."

The officers made the decision yesterday at an emergency meeting called by the members of the Howard County Centurions for Justice, which represents the county's black police officers.

The department's Internal Affairs Division is investigating allegations involving the cartoon, the officers said.

One of the officers, Pfc. Ricky Johnson, said that the meeting was called to make sure every black police officer had a chance to review the cartoon, which a top police official allegedly showed to a black officer and posted on his office door last week at county police headquarters in Ellicott City.

"We all needed to be aware of what was going on because there were so many rumors floating around," he said. "A lot of information went out in a very short amount of time, and we needed to know the truth."

The police department's leadership declined to comment on the incident, reading only a statement from Robey saying, "The department is conducting an investigation into the posting of a 'Far Side' cartoon by a member of the department."

Black officers said the controversy began last week when Capt. Stephen Drummond, commander of the Criminal Investigations Bureau, allegedly showed a cartoon depicting a slave ship followed by a small boat with a single slave in it to Detective Luther Johnson, the only black detective in the Crimes Against Persons section.

The cartoon's caption read "every slave ship should have a spare."

Several black officers allege that Drummond then displayed the cartoon on his office door for about 24 hours, until it was taken down.

Neither Drummond nor Luther Johnson would comment on the incident.

"This is really crazy," said Frank Lilly, a retired Howard County police officer and Centurions member who worked on the force for 19 years and in the Crimes Against Persons section under Drummond for eight years. "Anytime a captain would place something like that on a door knowing it would cause some kind of adverse effect is just ridiculous."

"This is a person in a position of responsibility who knows about sexual and racial harassment," Lilly said of the allegations. "And he's out posting cartoons and asking the officers how he feels about it. It's really frustrating."

The cartoon depicts an old slave ship with a group of beleaguered slaves rowing the ship while a slave master stands over them, cracking a whip, according to several black officers. A lone slave sits in a smaller boat behind the slave ship.

After the Centurions' meeting, Ricky Johnson said that the black officers deemed the cartoon offensive because the issue of slavery is such a sensitive one.

"The feeling from the meeting was that people thought it's inappropriate for a person in a managerial position to display a cartoon about slavery," he said.

Police spokesman Sgt. Steven Keller said yesterday that the police department sponsors annual in-service training for all officers on such issues as diversity and sexual harassment and has put a lot of effort into recruiting more minority officers.

The latest county police academy class, which graduated in early November, included eight blacks and five other minorities among its 25 members, police have said.

"We're well aware that the population of the county is changing," Keller said, "and we want to reflect that change."

Of the 327 sworn police officers in the Howard County police department, Keller said, 46 are African-American -- up from 41 in 1995.

Of the 46 black officers, nine are supervisors -- one captain, two lieutenants, five sergeants and a corporal, Keller said. The other black police officers are patrol officers.

The department also has 11 police officers from other minority groups, Keller said, up from six in 1995.

Lilly, the retired officer, said that yesterday's meeting marks the first time black Howard officers have gotten together formally to talk about such an inflammatory subject.

"Black officers have traditionally been reluctant to talk about sensitive issues for fear of retaliation from the department," he said. "They're afraid that they'll loose their jobs if they talk to the media."

Ricky Johnson thinks black officers are "finally trying to stand up for what we believe in. "Everyone should feel OK about that, if what you know is the truth."

Pub Date: 12/13/96

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