“What’s Going On Here?” Ten Ethics Observations On The Miami Beach Police Force Racist E-mails

Police games...

Police games…

Fred, my tireless and apparently sleepless issue scout, alerted me to this ugly story out of Florida:

MIAMI (AP) — A handful of Miami Beach police officers sent hundreds of racially offensive and pornographic emails and possibly jeopardized dozens of criminal cases in which they are witnesses, the department’s chief said Thursday. An internal investigation revealed that two of the 16 officers were high-ranking within the Miami Beach Police Department and were the main instigators, Chief Daniel Oates told reporters. One has retired, and the other was fired Thursday.Oates said the probe revealed about 230 emails demeaning to African-Americans and women or pornographic in nature. Many were depictions of crude racial jokes involving President Barack Obama or black celebrities such as golfer Tiger Woods. One shows a woman with a black eye and the caption, “Domestic violence. Because sometimes, you have to tell her more than once.”

One of the racially offensive emails depicted a board game called “Black Monopoly” in which every square says “go to jail.” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said about 540 cases in which the officers were witnesses are being reviewed to determine if they are tainted racially. Some charges could be dropped as a result or prisoners freed from jail

Fred comments, beginning with the favorite Ethics Alarms first step to ethics analysis:”What’s going on here? A widespread failure of leadership and personnel screening.”

That, for sure. Unfortunately, there is even more:

1. Number 2, after leadership, is training. It is mind-blowing that any police officers in the United States of America would not be aware of the degree to which such conduct jeopardizes community relations, trust and the effectiveness of the department, but I read about equally idiotic e-mail behavior from judges, lawyers, elected officials and business executives weekly. The message that this kind of thing is as destructive to the department and everyone in it, and won’t be tolerated even once, must be sent regularly, formally, and emphatically. Obviously, it wasn’t.

2. Do such e-mails prove that the Miami Beach police, or even the police officers involved, perform their jobs in a racist manner? The answers are 1) no, and 2) it doesn’t matter.

Once anything like this becomes public, trust is impossible for two reasons. First, it is more likely than not that someone who thinks e-mails like these are amusing does not sufficiently respect women and minorities, and second, it is beyond argument that their judgment is horrific. People who think it’s amusing to denigrate any group are not certain to be racist in their interactions with such groups, but given a choice, those groups would rather take their chances with someone else, and so would I. Meanwhile, people whose judgement is this horrific shouldn’t carry guns.

3. The worst consequences of this kind of revelation is that it reflects poorly on all police departments, everywhere. Is that fair? Obviously not, just as it isn’t fair for police to develop antagonistic and suspicious attitudes toward  African-American males based on the conduct of a few, some or many. What is fascinating and tragic is that neither  police nor African-American activists appear to comprehend that they both have the same problem. Individuals always affect perceptions of groups they belong to. You can say it is unfair, and indeed bigotry, for any individual to be prejudged on the basis of conduct he or she was not responsible for, and it is, but it is also unavoidable. Bias is an evolutionary trait, programmed into us all. It reminds us not to make the same mistake twice without thinking about it.

4.  For this reason, making sure that everyone possesses individual recognition of a responsibility not to harm one’s community, profession, social group, gender, or race by their personal bad conduct is crucial.

5. There are people too self-centered or stupid to process this principle. They do tremendous damage to the bonds that hold society together. They need to be detected, and rejected by their groups if their proclivities cannot be changed.

6. Apparently most of the officers who received the racist and sexist e-mails ignored them. They need to be punished, and severely. For the member of an organization to be aware of this kind of conduct and not to report it to superiors is almost as serious misconduct as composing and sending the e-mails in the first place. The obligation to report potential organizational rot must be recognized as a core professional responsibility. Again, leadership and training.

7. The culture of police and other dangerous professions requiring teamwork and trust dictates that members are loyal to each other above all.  This is exactly as corrupting and self-defeating, carried to an extreme, as inner city black neighborhoods that teach that one shouldn’t be a “snitch” and should refuse to report illegal conduct to the police. Loyalty and trust do not require complicity in misconduct. That warped cultural value in police forces, in the inner city, anywhere, must be rejected and changed.

8.  If you want a slam-dunk argument for why employers should monitor work e-mail, here it is.

9. A lot of Miami Beach police officers need to be fired or suspended for this scandal, beginning with leadership.

10. There are police departments that are festering sores of racism, anger and unprofessional practices. Once, before the internet, these departments could persist, harming their communities, abusing power, defiling the rule of law and basic human decency, for decades without anyone taking notice. Now the Fergusons are more likely to be exposed. That’s a positive development. They also, when they are exposed, undermine trust in law enforcement, racial justice, and the police everywhere, even in communities where progress is being made, leadership is strong, and police officers are performing their difficult jobs with courage, sensitivity and professionalism. I suppose that the benefit is worth the price.


Pointer: Fred

Facts: New York Times, AP


8 thoughts on ““What’s Going On Here?” Ten Ethics Observations On The Miami Beach Police Force Racist E-mails

  1. Loyalty and trust do not require complicity in misconduct.

    I am trying to think of a way of telling you the following that won’t lead to an outburst, possibly even including telling me that you meant to write that, so it should stand. So I’ll ease into it.

    Some time ago I mentioned the use of nitroglycerin as a heart treatment to a nurse. “Oh no”, she said, “that’s glyceryl trinitrate”. Likewise, many people counter objections to (say) a majority abusing a minority through the democratic process by saying that that’s not “really” democracy.

    What’s going on there is a variant of cognitive dissonance. They are so in favour of something in its usual expressions that they classify out any expressions that they don’t like: the nurse wouldn’t call the medication by the name for the exact same thing that she associated with explosives, the democrat reads out genuine democracy whenever it is abusive – and you read out genuine loyalty and trust whenever they lead to complicity in misconduct. But that doesn’t work, even for someone who tries to rebut with, “well, that’s what those terms mean when I use them”. It doesn’t work because you can only apply that to the outcome after the fact, in a consequentialist way (the patient did take nitroglycerin if he accidentally hit it and it exploded), and not as a test. It also fails from the lack of care in trying to frame it in advance as a test (police are there to protect and serve, which is good, so how dare you even suggest supervising them to prevent abuse – by their very nature they wouldn’t do that).

    All that is a roundabout way of leading up to telling you that, yes, sometimes loyalty and trust do require complicity in misconduct (look up the motto of the SS some time), and that is precisely why there is more to things than just loyalty and trust – you can’t simply say that they are good so anything that isn’t good isn’t those things. The only way to deal with abuses of that sort is not to deny that they occur under loyalty and trust but to make sure that there is a properly understood, broader and more helpful loyalty and trust in place in the culture, precisely in order to lead people in the direction of countering the abuses rather than condoning them. Abuse and misuse are not non-use.

    • No outburst. This is just typical sophistry. Loyalty and trust don’t require misconduct…when the individual asking for the loyalty of trust is worthy of it. It is disloyal and a breach of trust to ask a comrade to do wrong in the name of loyalty and trust.

      There. I spelled it out out for you. I assumed the readers in the group would immediately grasp the concept I was discussing, as you undoubtedly do, given the context, which is ethics, not the SS, not the Nixon White House, not the Corleone Family. But thanks for the clarification and the condescending intro anyway.

      “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly…”

  2. I think it’s a sign of demoralization within the police ranks- and society at large- from a weariness over the “white privilege”, anti-police and general political correctness mantras that one and all are being subjected to. Naturally, this is unacceptable. For policemen, it’s downright unprofessional and breaks the bonds of fellowship between the officers themselves; vital for unit morale. But even worse, it plays into the hands of race baiters who seek exactly this sort of backlash from whites in general in order to take things up another notch in fulfilling their agenda.

    These people must not succeed in there quest for power by dividing Americans against on another. Nor must policemen of any background succumb to the traditional bane of the metropolitan police forces; the “us vs. them” mentality. I’m not surprised to see something like this happen, with all that’s been transpiring. But it cannot be tolerated. Policemen must be professional for the sake of their neighbors whom they exist to protect. On the other hand, those neighbors must be diligent in electing officials who are responsible and don’t seek by their policies to engender this divisiveness in the police or in the polities they represent.

  3. Thank you Jack. This is the kind of stuff that makes my head explode. Your post will translate almost verbatim into a staff meeting presentation for my PD. I am confident I will get a “well duh” response, but if we can’t police our own we will always be our own worst enemy in the effort to build community trust.

  4. “… it is more likely than not that someone who thinks e-mails like these are amusing does not sufficiently respect women and minorities . . . ”

    I have found that these two frequently go together, regardless of the status, gender, character or minority membership of the disrespectful person. They are twinned biases in people whose self-esteem (and/or powerful peer group) requires the invention of inferiority in others unlike — most easily visibly unlike — themselves. The more shared safely and without objection, in family, neighborhood, classroom, religion, workplace, society (and law) the more easily ridiculed; the more easily that ridicule is taken for granted; and the more permissible it is to add on yet another figure of fun.

    Within racism and sexism, for instance, is often added homophobia in the guise of the mockery of gay men (higher than that towards lesbians to the point of excluding them altogether from interest) because the portion of gay men who were visible were seen to resemble (however purposefully, on occasion) a stereotype of females, the woman being the primary object of contempt and the homophobia being the most convenient way to hide it. Similarly, in the black and to a lesser extent Hispanic communities where “macho” still reigns, being able to look down on other men who appeared woman-like, especially white, and mock with impunity, gave them an obvious high ground. With the “coming out” of the some of the male figures who otherwise would not be identified as gay (sometimes not even to their own families) there has been a significant decrease in acceptable PERSONAL, jeering and sneering.

    But the Internet offers an outlet for unpopular biases that are convenient for people who are now made uncomfortable — on up to getting them into a hell of a lot of trouble (you would think) — by expressing their confusion, frustration and anger in another way. People keep forgetting that the biggest and most public use of the Internet is communication, potentially the dirtiest four-letter word of them all: “E”-MAIL.

  5. This is Part Two of what turned out to be a double subject born indirectly of Observations #6 and #8 – dealing with people who should be fired for not reporting receiving the offensive emails, and who should have had their workplace email monitored in the first place. I see the ethical problems inherent in both but I don’t agree with the actions to be taken. It would be both futile and incendiary, and possibly the cause of lengthy litigation to fire employees for not reporting the person who sent them the flagrantly offensive material (this is what on-going training is necessary for and, in the larger picture, as noted, to make a change in the Blue cultural norms — and good luck with that). Or to invoke the detestable “nanny state” oversight of PC use in the workplace with its inevitable resentful or infantile reaction, and an easy getaround, upping profits for companies that sell those “hand-held devices” that text and send pictures and take you to your electronic In/Out boxes in seconds. I don’t have solutions to offer the clean-up crew in Miami Beach but I do believe there has to be a new approach to dealing with the problem at its (online) source.

    There is an increase in open bias of all kinds on the Internet. People will say in emails — for many, it is the only Internet function they use — what they would never have put on paper, much less said in person even to close friends.

    The really squeamy part approaches in progression: each email is addressed to one person at a time and arrives there, presumably in private. It’s very funny, and very … let’s say, unethical. To stop there and press Spam is one’s prerogative: that gets rid of both unacceptable message and sender both, permanently. Or to press Return, after adding a critical comment, of necessity implying that the sender was wrong, bad or stupid to have sent it to you and thus you are effectively breaking off communication with him. How likely are any of those actions to be when the email came from a friend, co-worker, superior or anyone else with whom future contact is necessary or desirable? Or when you don’t know where the message originated: it came to you under a — surprise! – false name that could in reality belong to any of the above. It is reportable — if you deem it so — just as an anonymous letter left on your desk would be, except that the letter would be from someONE to you (one), and not already out to dozens of people you know, or worse, don’t know. (you know that if you don’t recognize the sender – why would he send just to you? – or if you do and know that you’re a part of a Contact group. There is another twist to the “police culture” that would mean you too would be scooped up in the virtual paddywagon and you would be the immediate cause of — what actually happened — the public knowing what horrible protecters and peace-keepers they had.

    The next choice is plausible and fairly common for people of conscience or taste or intelligence (if not JMethics): Press Delete. Grin or frown, and forget it. The Deleted email is treated like a letter torn up in the wastebasket or flushed down the toilet. But it isn’t gone – even Spam doesn’t instantly disappear, depending on your settings, and Trash can be retrievable for days (not to mention what a 9-year old hacker can do when fishing in a hard drive). Hey, but the email is really clever or provocative, and he wants to savor it when he has more time, so a few more clicks will tuck it away out of sight under the imaginary Folder named “last year’s time sheets” with other like material.

    Up to this point, the email “stops here.” It is still considered by the recipient to be nobody else’s business, especially if the ideas or images it contains are known to be against the rules, and (maybe? ya think?) skirting the law. After all, someone else sent it to you. It’s already out there and thus approved by people you know, cooperate with, and perhaps obey. Then why not join the group (like going out for a beer after work) and Forward (aka the positive-sounding “share”) it to one of your Contacts. That’s a bit more likely: Type in a nickname or if you’re very organized, a group name of every Contact who likes the down-and-dirty. Then press Forward, and …

    … something new happens that has not been taken into consideration: the email becomes a self-supporting chain letter, whether that was the intention or not. The mistaken idea is that once out of one’s hands, the message is still private as far as the Forwarder is concerned. If responsibility for the message is thought about at all, any real concern for content is believed to belong to the original Sender, whoever that was. (IA may haf ways of findink out, but you don’t.) It’s not like re-mailing a letter you received in a sealed envelope, its objective the responsibility of the United States Postal Service (… still, if barely, functional); not as if it were picked up and published without your intent, permission, or knowledge, now becoming public property. (Now, THAT used to be known as unethical, if not the basis of a lawsuit; if it came back to haunt the original writer, it could be months, maybe centuries, later before it affected one’s reputation.) So what’s to care about? Whatever privacy you had – which wasn’t much – ended when you pressed Forward.

    There remains so much naivety about the Internet, including the fact the email is just one function of it, thought taking up 91% of its use [that figure is halfway between the reported 88% for men and 94% for women], but it rarely occurs to people that the protection of privacy they have only applies to what stays off-line, that once it goes out as an email, it is as vulnerable to a third-party email provider , as well as to being passed along freely by any recipient. It is nothing short of insane that people who would not have considered for a moment sending nude photos of themselves, pulling frauds, telling actionable lies or disseminating viciously racist porn through the US mail will assume they have both privacy and permission to do so online. When the piercing-and-tattooing rage was on, it was recognized even by most of those who went under the needle that this was Not a Good Idea (NAGI in newspeak textish), even when the holes or ink were not visible to the public eye and the pricked one just knew she would always be young and have the same approving friends. That kind of recognition of NAGI seems to be lacking still. The fact is that the E in EMAIL means Everything that goes out there stays out there. Once it is passed along, it can be seen by others it wasn’t intended for, misinform, insult, enrage, hurt people desperately (including drive the emotionally vulnerable to suicide), create havoc and backlash, social and political polarities, AND come back atcha to whap you upside the head regardless of your security system (you don’t have Hillary’s). None of this is considered or cared about. People CAN believe two opposing ideas at once: Email is protected, private, doesn’t even have a “signature” to show it where it “legally” came from AND computers can be connected so that everything you do on it can be seen and your emails can be made simply traceable, unprotected, and not at all private.

    Email is worst misunderstood and misused because most people think of it as a new form of “mail” rather than 1} a new, marvelously convenient form of communication with no rules (well, presumably you can’t make death threats or use certain traitorous or terrorist vocabulary that can be picked up by the Big One at Langley — and we know what happens when kids make jokes online that authorities will punish with imprisonment, as with the boy in Texas; but other than that….) Email is not an electronic arm of the USPS with all its privacy safeguards, federal regulations and powers (200+ of them). The technology is virtually uncontrollable, as the Chinese government has found out to its surprise and dismay. And 2} It also has minimal privacy: Umptillion bitty bytes are floating around noncorporeally, invisibly, insensibly, amorally and unethically, just waiting for the right key to be pressed, just like random Googling.

    In other words, just about anything can be said or shown, yes. And just about everything shown — on any internet-connectible device — can be made visible to others and used for their purposes, virtually forever. Until both those possibilities merge in the minds of individuals as a single reality, no outside controls or sanctions or laws are going to be effective. If ever a concept of thought and behavior was needed to be joined with a school subject at the earliest possible age, Ethics should be integrated into the computer class at the same time the Internet is introduced.

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