Here we go again. Someone in a position of authority has said something racist. More specifically, something racist about President Barack Obama, and gotten caught. Only this time the person didn’t make a fried-chicken or watermelon joke, or call the commander in chief “boy.” He actually used the n-word. And did I mention this authority figure—who used the most offensive racial slur imaginable—also happens to be a member of a local police commission?
Robert Copeland, a police commissioner in Wolfeboro, N.H., referred to Obama—in public—as “that f–king n–ger.” A witness subsequently reported the incident to other members of the police commission, which eventually generated a reply from Copeland that read, in part: “I believe I did use the ‘N’ word in reference to the current occupant of the Whitehouse [sic]. For this I do not apologize—he meets and exceeds my criteria for such.”
Copeland cited his First Amendment rights in his defiant defense. But what made Copeland’s shockingly offensive remarks, and his shockingly offensive defense of those remarks, even more disturbing is his current leadership role. He may not carry a loaded gun, but one could argue that his current status is even more dangerous. As part of the three-person police commission, Copeland makes key decisions about Wolfeboro’s law enforcement, including those concerning hiring and official police procedures and policy. It’s a small town, but just imagine if someone overseeing the New York Police Department had made similar comments last year amid the heated debate over stop and frisk.
And consider, for a moment, if you were a black motorist planning to visit New Hampshire anytime soon. How comfortable would you now feel driving through the town of Wolfeboro late at night, knowing that Robert Copeland played a role in dictating how officers handle traffic stops? He’s yet another example of a troubling pattern America has yet to fully confront: How do we hold law enforcement accountable for views expressed in their private lives that may affect their professional behavior?
In 2009 the Nebraska Supreme Court upheld the firing of Trooper Robert Henderson from the Nebraska State Patrol after he joined a white-pride group. He claimed he was motivated to do so after his wife left him for a Hispanic man. Though the court ruled against him, the matter is far from settled nationally.
In March, Minneapolis police officer Joseph Klimmek was accused of posting racially insensitive comments on Facebook, including jokes about Cinco de Mayo as well as high-crime neighborhoods. And in January, Pleasantville, N.Y., police Officer Peter Burns was reinstated after being briefly suspended for making racist comments about social media about President Obama. Burns allegedly wrote, “The fact that he [Obama] is still alive bewilders me. Go die in a shallow grave you Muslim commie.”
The fact that Burns is still in a position of authority, and operating in that position with a firearm, should be enough to send a chill up anyone’s spine.
While freedom of speech is clearly one of the bedrocks of American culture, the right not to fear those sworn to serve and protect us should be another. But for too many, particularly men of color, that fear is all too real. If you’re not convinced, just take a look at The Root’s 2013 list of 20 unarmed black men killed by law-enforcement officers.
And not all of the law-enforcement officers who claimed these lives had publicly expressed feelings of suspicion or prejudice toward men of color. So doesn’t that mean there should be a zero-tolerance policy against those who actually go on the record with their bigotry? Which means that Robert Copeland and the police commission’s chairman, Joseph Balboni Jr., who defended Copeland, have got to go.
But this is an issue bigger than both of them. Before any person is given a badge and a gun, or authority over those with guns, his attitudes about those he may one day be tempted to pull that gun on should be gauged. While a majority of law-enforcement agencies require some form of psychological testing, it is finally time to make diversity and sensitivity training mandatory among law-enforcement agencies nationwide, instead of simply having something done voluntarily to save face in the wake of yet another racial-profiling or police-brutality scandal—or in the wake of another member of law enforcement using the n-word.