Forgot to laugh Howard County police: Official needs lesson in racial sensitivity after cartoon blunder.

December 16, 1996

SLAVERY NEVER has been a joking matter in America. For good reason, the topic does not surface in the monologues of Letterman or Leno. Painful histories make it difficult, if not impossible, to reduce topics such as slavery and the Holocaust to humor without stirring deep emotions of pain or rage, especially among people whose heritage connects them with the suffering.

Howard County Police Capt. Stephen Drummond, who is white, found humor in a cartoon about a slave ship, but black county police officers are not laughing. Cartoonist Gary Larsen, the offbeat creator of "Far Side," portrayed a vessel with a shipload of slaves and their overseer. In the drawing, the ship was trailed by a dingy carrying a single slave. The caption read: "Every slave ship should have a spare." Apparently, this cartoon was in a "Far Side" calendar.

Captain Drummond was accused by a black police officers organization of showing the cartoon to the sole black detective in the department's Crimes Against Persons section. Then, allegedly, the captain posted the cartoon on his own door and kept it there for 24 hours.

If true, it is surprising behavior from a top official. Viewed in the most favorable light, it shows insensitivity to or unfamiliarity with the sting that persists from the history of slavery. As commander of the Criminal Investigations Bureau in a police department of the 1990s, Captain Drummond is expected to be more aware of racial issues. Diversity training for police may not cure the illness that is racism, but it should give officers insight into what bothers members of various minority groups.

Howard County police deserve credit for responding quickly to the complaint by the Howard County Centurions for Justice, the black officers' group. The Internal Affairs Division is pursuing an investigation into the captain's behavior. The department has penalties for conduct unbecoming of an officer, which hopefully include refresher courses in diversity training.

Under the leadership of Chief James N. Robey, the department has made strides in improving its reputation on race matters. An impressive number of African-Americans were recruited to its most recent class; more experienced black officers are moving up the ranks. The department is not helped by such mindless acts by its own personnel.

Pub Date: 12/16/96

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