State police silent on punishment for racial slur

Our view: The failure to report the outcome of an investigation in Somerset County raises questions

March 02, 2010

Maryland State Police have been under considerable scrutiny over matters of race relations over the years. Racial profiling in traffic stops is just one example. Despite the agency's decision to abandon the practice, allegations of "driving while black" incidents still pop up regularly.

Just last month, the state agency was ordered by the Maryland Court of Special Appeals to turn over to the NAACP records showing how troopers have dealt internally with allegations of racial profiling. The MSP has long resisted disclosing what state officials regarded as personnel documents.

This tension -- between police claiming to have reformed but refusing to disclose information that might prove their case -- is evident in the agency's handling of the case of a a state police sergeant in Somerset County who was recorded using a racial slur.

Last week, MSP officials announced that they'd concluded an administrative investigation into the Eastern Shore incident. But they declined to reveal what the investigation concluded or whether any punishment was meted out to anyone.

This much is known: While returning the call of a Princess Anne woman who is African-American and apparently thinking he had hung up or been disconnected, the sergeant was recorded using the slur twice in a casual conversation with a colleague.

The incident caused something of an uproar in Somerset County. The recording was heard widely, and an edited version was posted on a local newspaper Web site.

Greg Shipley, a state police spokesman, said the individual involved, a 13-year veteran, is still employed by the agency. He said state personnel laws prohibit disclosure of any more specific information.

If so, that clearly poses a problem for state police. While restrictions on most internal personnel matters are probably appropriate, we see little reason for such a prohibition if the name of the employee is officially withheld, as it has been in this case.

The public has a right to know if MSP condones such behavior. State police officials say they do not, but in such a matter, actions speak far louder than words. Is using the n-word regarded as a minor transgression or perhaps not one at all? Under the agency's current interpretation of the rules, it's impossible to tell. Clearly, it's in the interests of the state police to disclose. At the risk of reading too much into scant information, there's even a good chance the sergeant was punished: The sergeant was described last year as a criminal investigator and now as being assigned to the bureau that oversees uniformed patrol.

At what point does the public interest trump privacy rights? Just as it's appropriate for the ACLU or NAACP to have access to internal investigations into allegations of racial profiling, Marylanders have a right to know how the agency handles episodes of insensitivity that reveal, at minimum, startling poor judgment.

Without greater disclosure, the state police will continue to struggle with credibility on matters of race relations. That kind of stonewalling is not only unfair to the public but to upstanding MSP employees whose reputations are besmirched by the bad behavior of a few.

Readers respond

This officer simply cannot be trusted to do the right thing when black citizens call for help. We cannot afford people on the police force with the potential to mete out unequal justice. Speech is the window to the mind, and the mind is where all actions are born.

County citizens should be able to find out what punishment, if any, this police officer received, what he is doing to change himself and why he has not made a public apology.

Caravan

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