In June 2020 the conversation of three cops in Wilmington NC talking to one other in their separate cars was inadvertently recorded by the police system. After scanning a 2-hour video that had been “accidentally activated”, towards the end of the tape an officer found conversation she found to be “extremely racist”.
Why, one wonders, did the Wilmington police department devote so much time to scrutinizing an accidental recording? No matter: the comments thus discovered were indeed unpleasantly racist. The mildest involved one officer referring to a black woman and later a black magistrates as “negroes”. The officers also speculated about a possible coming civil war and “slaughtering them”. Another officer apparently felt a civil war was needed to “wipe them off the (expletive) map.” Another officer told this one that he was “crazy”. The recording ceased at that point.
Overall, the officers’ conduct was deplorable. On the other hand, their conversation was intended to be private and some of it might not be racist.
The word “negro” was once the acceptable term for African-Americans. It was MLK’S term and is used by black charitable organizations like the United Negro College Fund. Now Black Lives Matter seems to have ratified the word “black”. The point is that racial issues are so touchy that acceptable language changes frequently.
The name for anything that is, or was, regarded as undesirable, is always subject to change. An obvious example is mental handicap. After the term “idiot” became unacceptable it was supplanted by “moron” (yes, the Greek-derived “moron” was for a while a gentler and more acceptable term than Middle English “idiot”). Moron in turn has been succeeded by a long list of euphemisms, the current favorite being “special needs.”
Although the Wilmington cops can be exonerated for some of what they said, much that is racist remains. There is as yet no evidence that they acted publicly as their words implied (an inquiry is ongoing). The three officers denied that they are racists. Their conduct was intended to be private; in effect it was a “thought crime”.
Nevertheless, before the results of an inquiry are in, they have all been fired.
Avid anti-racists may regard this as a just punishment. But, absent any evidence of public misbehavior by the three officers, the punishment will seem to others both hasty and harsh.
Wilmington police authorities should reflect on what their action means for society as a whole. Racism may be a sin. But the idea of “sin” is a Christian one and it comes along with the idea of redemption — and forgiveness. The treatment of these three officers for a private speech crime is not only un-Christian, it is also chilling.
Peremptory and extreme treatment suppresses not just free speech but free thought. Perhaps that’s the idea, although I doubt the officers’ superiors thought much about that. Protecting their fragile fundaments was probably the main thing on their minds. But arbitrary and harsh punishment does chill thought and that is much worse than the small amount of bigotry that is unavoiadable in any free society.
A more moderate punishment would have let the officers and the public know that the Wilmington police department understands justice as well decency: decency of behavior and justice of punishment. As it is, they do themselves no credit by bowing to the mob.
CAVEAT: This post was deemed “too political” for my blog on Psychology Today. You be the judge.