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Police e-mail sparks anger


February 1, 2001

A message posted by a Baltimore County police officer on the police union Web site has sparked outrage among some black members of the department, who say the posting reflects racist sentiments.

"In my 19 years with the department, I have never been that offended by somebody in this department," said Cpl. Jerry Fitch. "When I look at that, I think, 'Is that his thinking on the street? Is he saying he feels that way about every black male?'"

The message, posted on the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 4 site Jan. 24, was a response to the not-guilty verdict in the trial of Eric D. Stennett, who was charged with murder after his car rammed a Baltimore police car, killing Officer Kevon M. Gavin. Stennett, who is black, was being pursued by police when the crash occurred.

The author of the posting is Officer Paul Hoke, a five-year veteran assigned to the Towson precinct. He said yesterday he was expressing his outrage at the verdict, which he maintained reflects a disturbing pattern among Baltimore juries.

In the message, Hoke, 24, described city officers as "animal tamers" and said Baltimore - where African-Americans make up 67 percent of the population - is "like entering a freakin' jungle."

"The real problem is that these scum have a right to a jury of their peers. When their peers are just as sleazy, scummy and dirty as the defendants what else can we expect?" Hoke wrote. "If these jurors put these defendants where they belong (jail, gas chamber, etc.) then who would be there to get their heroin, get them pregnant by age 14 or go on welfare with?"

"My theory," he concluded: "Wall off a certain portion of the city, and let 'em kill each other."

Hoke apologized yesterday for the comments, saying he was "blowing off steam."

"The whole purpose of that message was to express my outrage. ... It was just my way of expressing my displeasure with the system and how [the jurors] failed that city officer," Hoke said in an interview. "It was not racially motivated."

First Amendment cited

But his comments shocked Fitch and other black officers. Fitch said he expressed his concern to Chief Terrence B. Sheridan last week but was told Hoke's comments were protected under the First Amendment.

"There are things that one can do that are appropriate off duty that are not appropriate on duty," said Bill Toohey, a county police spokesman. "He has responsibilities as a police officer, but he also has rights under the Constitution, so we have to balance the two."

Hoke, who patrols the East Towson and Hillendale neighborhoods, said he wrote the message while off duty.

Toohey said the department has received no formal complaints about Hoke's posting. If complaints are filed, the department will conduct an internal investigation, he said.

NAACP to discuss incident

The Baltimore County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People received an unsigned fax on police department stationery this week complaining about the message, said Herbert Lindsey, a member of the organization's executive committee. He said NAACP leaders will meet to discuss the incident and "do whatever is appropriate."

"It is the kind of thing that certainly requires some kind of public response," Lindsey said.

The head of the Blue Guardians, an organization of minority county police officers, said she was disturbed by Hoke's comments.

"It is really unfortunate that we have someone [on the force] who feels that way about the city itself and the residents who live there," said Officer Yvonne Waters, president of the group.

After Hoke wrote his message on the FOP Web site, another person responded anonymously, saying, "You might as well be wearing a white sheet over your uniform. Clearly you are a bigot."

Hoke said yesterday that he is alarmed that his comments have been construed to be racist and offered to meet with anyone he might have offended. "I am probably the farthest thing from a racist that walks on the earth," he said. "It was never about race, but I was upset that [an alleged] cop killer was acquitted."

Toohey said Hoke could be disciplined even though he was off-duty, because the department has rules that govern conduct "unbecoming" an officer. But he called it "a fine line."

The Rev. Dwayne Debnam, pastor of the Morning Star Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation in Catonsville, said he thinks Hoke's comments went too far.

"This is not a statement coming from the [Ku Klux] Klan, this is a statement coming from a public police officer," Debnam said. "It would seem to me that they would at least ask him to explain his statement or clarify it."

Fitch and Waters said Hoke should be required to attend sensitivity training.

Tim Craig, SunSpot.net


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