Officials examine officer's remarks; county policeman's comments prompt NAACP inquiry, too
(BALTIMORE COUNTY, Md.) -- As criticism intensified yesterday, the police department and the NAACP launched separate investigations into comments by an off-duty officer that some of his black colleagues denounced as racist.
Chief Terrence B. Sheridan announced late yesterday that the department has begun an internal inquiry into comments posted on a police union Web site last week by Officer Paul Hoke.
At the same time, Anthony Fugett, the president of the Baltimore County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said his group would try to determine whether there is widespread racism in the department.
"We are attempting to get under the covers to see if it is an isolated incident ... or if the attitude is prevalent within the Baltimore County Police Department," said Fugett, who plans to meet with Sheridan and top police commanders today.
At least one community leader called on Sheridan to dismiss Hoke because of the message, which referred to Baltimore as a "jungle" and called city officers "animal tamers."
Some criminal attorneys and a top county prosecutor also warned that Hoke's Internet message could jeopardize the state's attorney's office's ability to prosecute cases.
"You saw what happened in the O. J. (Simpson) case with (Detective Mark) Fuhrman," said Sue A. Schenning, a deputy state's attorney. "Any time an officer expresses his views in a public forum, that then can be used against them, particularly when there is an allegation the arrest was motivated by racial reasons."
Hoke, 24, a five-year veteran assigned to the Towson Precinct, made his comments on the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4 message board to show his frustration with the Baltimore jury that acquitted Eric D. Stennett. Stennett, who is black, was charged with murder after his vehicle hit a Baltimore police car, killing Officer Kevon M. Gavin, who was also black.
The message said Baltimore residents are "just as sleazy, scummy and dirty as the defendants" and made blanket statements about city residents using drugs, getting pregnant and going on welfare.
Yesterday, Sheridan said he is "outraged" by the comments and reiterated the department's commitment to diversity. Officials said Hoke will continue to patrol East Towson and Hillendale during the police investigation.
"Such a thorough investigation will enable us to explore all aspects of this incident," said Sheridan, noting that he had also ordered employees to review department regulations on nondiscrimination.
The FOP message board, which had been open to the public, was closed yesterday. It will be replaced with one restricted to FOP members, union officials said.
Hoke's comments angered some black officers, who have criticized the department for responding too slowly to their complaints.
Hoke, who has two stepchildren whose father is African-American, apologized Wednesday.
But some African-Americans called for Hoke's resignation or termination because they said his apology did not go far enough.
"This man has such a racist, hostile view of the African-American community. How is this man going to go into the community if he feels that way about a segment of the population?" said A. Dwight Pettit, a defense attorney who represented Stennett.
Ella White Campbell, a Randallstown community leader and former educator, said Hoke should be fired because "he is not able to exercise sound judgment."
"Even though there is an apology, it is unacceptable," Campbell said. "You can drive a nail into the tree and take it out, but the hole is still there."
Fugett said it was "too early to pass judgment" on Hoke.
But several people, who refused to give their names, called The Sun yesterday to support the officer.
Hoke would not comment yesterday, but his attorney, Mike Marshall, repeated his client's apology. "The officer did not mean this to be anything racial. This was directed at the criminal element ... that Baltimore officers and all officers have to deal with day in and day out," said Marshall, an FOP attorney.
Marshall said Hoke's comments are probably protected by the First Amendment because they were made while he was off duty.
"He is speaking about a matter of public concern, and he is doing it off duty," Marshall said.
But Pettit said Hoke has given a valuable weapon to defense attorneys representing minority clients arrested by the officer.
"I would not only use it as fodder, but I would use it to move to dismiss anything he is involved with (regarding) African-Americans to show he was prejudiced from the beginning," Pettit said.
Schenning said Hoke's Internet message would probably not cause a judge to dismiss a case, though it could be used to try to build a pattern indicating bias.
"Any public officials should think before they open their mouth, whether it is oral, written or whatever," she said.
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