Torrance cop scandal over racist texts mere tip of bigotry iceberg within nation’s law enforcement

A number of Torrance police officers, according to the Los Angeles Times investigation that exposed the scandal, traded texts on their phones and computers that reveled in vile hate speech directed at every imaginable minority, from Blacks to Latinos to Jews to the LGBTQ community. They shared memes treating the lynching of Black people as a joke (one offered instructions on tying a noose), while others joked about gassing Jewish people.

At least 85 criminal cases involving the officers in question have already been dismissed, while the same officers were involved in some 1,400 cases in the past decade that almost certainly will come under review now. Two of the officers named in the scandal were charged in August for spray-painting a swastika inside a vehicle.

The texts also made clear the officers were arrogant in the impunity with which they operated. One officer who mocked a Black person who filed a racial profiling case against him essentially confessed in his text to doing so, clearly believing he would never be held accountable: “So we totally racially profiled his ass, haha.”

“The reports are very disturbing and we are committed to going wherever the facts lead and making sure we remedy the situation and get the Torrance Police Department on a corrective course of action,” California Attorney General Rob Bonta told reporters.

It’s unsurprising that such a scandal would erupt in Torrance, given its history as a “sundown town” in which Black people were forbidden to reside or even visit after dark. One unconfirmed legend about the town indicates that a small cluster of Black people moved into a neighborhood in the 1930s, but were burned out of their homes by a mob of their neighbors, who turned the scorched block into a local park they nicknamed “N—-r Park.” As of 1970, the town’s population included only 24 African Americans.

Nor have the suburb’s politics changed significantly. In 2020, in the wake of nationwide anti-police-brutality protests following the murder of George Floyd, Torrance hosted a “Back the Blue” pro-police rally that drew more than 100 people, and became indistinguishable from a pro-Donald Trump rally.

However, it is hardly the only California locale where police racism has reared its head. Bonta noted that he intends the investigation to be “broad in scope”—leading to hope that other police departments would face similar investigations, since that is what is clearly needed. As the Los Angeles Times observed in its editorial on the matter: “It shocks the conscience, but no longer comes as a complete surprise, that the same attitude may persist today in many police departments, and not merely those in former sundown towns.”

Michael German, a former FBI agent who now works as a national security analyst for the Brennan Center for Justice, concurs. German has written frequently in recent years on the increasing presence of bigoted extremists within the ranks of law enforcement, and how it has toxified police culture and the resulting law enforcement treatment of minority communities.

“We can’t know for certain how common it is for police officers around the country to engage in racist misbehavior because no government agency routinely monitors or investigates such activities across the profession. But there are facts that can’t be dismissed that indicate racism is far too common in today’s law enforcement culture,” German told Daily Kos via email.

“The Attorney General’s investigation of Torrance Police Department follows a pattern we see in other cases, in which an internal investigation into a particular incident of racist misconduct uncovers a broad pattern of abuse involving multiple law enforcement officials over a long period of time,” German continued. “The fact that more than a dozen officers are alleged to have participated in racist banter on text messages over multiple years indicates these attitudes were accepted within the local police culture. It would be hard to believe this activity was so widespread and no one in management was aware of these police officers’ hateful attitudes toward the communities they were sworn to serve. Yet no action was taken to address the racist behavior until it became a public scandal.”

As he observes, the current scandal is really only the latest in a long line of similar incidents, including a significant number of them in California, a relatively liberal state.

“The Torrance Police Department’s racist texting investigation is just the latest of several scandals, including recent investigations at the San Francisco Police Department, San Jose Police Department, Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and National City Police Department,” German said. “And these are just California police agencies, a reliably blue state with well-funded and well-compensated police departments. Of course, similar scandals have been uncovered in police agencies across the country, including federal law enforcement agencies. And it is important to keep in mind that these scandals were not uncovered as a comprehensive effort to investigate racist misconduct within law enforcement, they were mostly the result of individual citizen complaints and the work of investigative journalists.”

Bonta’s investigation, he argued, needs to be both rigorous and sweeping: “It is good that the California Attorney General is investigating the Torrance Police Department, but this investigation should include a broader inquiry into the scope of the problem of racist policing throughout the state.”

Similar revelations of racist texting have included the ranks of federal law enforcement. A 2019 investigation by ProPublica uncovered a Facebook group for Border Patrol agents that was riddled with racist and sexist posts and memes. Equally disturbing was the outcome of that investigation: As the Washington Post reported recently, a congressional review found most of the agents caught participating in the forum were given slaps on the wrist, thanks to a dubious internal review process. Only two out of the more than 60 identified were fired, contrary to a review board’s recommendations.

Moreover, there has been a steady drumbeat of similar scandals briefly erupting in police departments around the United States. Even an incomplete accounting of the many such incidents demonstrates that they’re happening in every region, and in every kind of jurisdiction, large and small, urban, suburban, and rural:

  • In 2015, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, police fired four police officers charged with patrolling a predominantly Black neighborhood who had exchanged racist text messages.
  • In 2016, racist text messages exchanged by San Francisco police officers were revealed by the city’s public defender, jeopardizing some 207 criminal cases. Police chief Gregory Suhr—who later resigned under public pressure—responded by ordering his officers to take bias-sensitivity training.
  • Similarly, in 2019, two Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers who were found to have exchanged racist texts were ordered to undergo “training on the impacts of systemic racism” but retained on the force. “This appears to be an isolated incident and hopefully we won’t have any more,” a deputy chief told reporters.
  • In 2020, an officer with the Austin, Texas, police department was fired over racist texts he exchanged with fellow officers. Police chief Brian Manley explained in a memo that the officer, Daniel Castelline, was fired not just for the texts but for his refusal to own up to their content: “A strong theme of Officer Castelline’s interview was the acceptance of little responsibility,” he wrote.
  • In May 2021, Lansing, Michigan, police fired an unnamed officer for sending racist texts to his coworkers.
  • In June 2021, a Cleveland police officer was exposed for having sent racist texts about Black football players for Ohio State on his personal cell phone. He received a 10-day suspension for having failed to investigate crimes, and also was ordered to take sensitivity training.
  • Earlier this summer in St. Louis, a jury found former police officer Dustin Boone guilty of assaulting an undercover detective officer during the 2017 protests over the acquittal of a former St. Louis cop for shooting a Black man named Anthony Lamar Smith. Boone’s conviction hinged on racist texts he had sent to fellow officers—describing Black people as “animals” who were “running wild across the city”—that were revealed during his trial.

When a Scranton police officer fired for threatening a fellow cop was revealed in 2020 to have engaged in an exchange of wantonly racist texts with another officer, he responded that such remarks were just part of the existing environment among police.

“I am aware that making those comments were inappropriate and unprofessional and never should have been sent,” the officer wrote. “However, these types of comments are made on a daily basis here … that is the culture at this department.”

Scranton police adamantly denied that this was the case—as do police departments wherever these scandals erupt. But the strength and consistency of the pattern is too powerful to conclude otherwise.

“Police culture is very insular. It’s isolated and cut off from much of the rest of the community in many ways,” remarked Mark Fancher, the racial justice project staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan. “When you have these kinds of ideas and attitudes that are present, then they spread and can infect an entire department, so any time it’s detected, it is important to cut it out much as you would early detection of a cancer.”

As German observes, these matters also fall within the purview of federal authorities, who are overdue in initiating a serious and thorough project to tackle the matter.

“Congress gave the U.S. Justice Department and FBI jurisdiction to investigate civil rights violations by law enforcement officials, yet though the FBI has acknowledged that the subjects of its domestic terrorism investigations of white supremacists often reveal active links to law enforcement, they have not developed a comprehensive strategy to address this persistent problem,” he said.

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