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Lawsuit charges racism in Philadelphia police department

Published Jul 27, 2009 9:59 PM

Charging that city computers were used by on- and off-duty white police officers to post blatantly racist and offensive comments to a Web site, the Guardian Civic League, an association of Black Philadelphia police, filed a federal lawsuit against the department on July 16.

The suit, joined by the NAACP and the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers, seeks to have the racist Web site domelights.com shut down and the police department punish its users.

Speaking at a press conference to announce the suit, Rochelle Bilal, head of the League, said she has come across hundreds of disparaging remarks about Blacks made by white officers. The League has been monitoring the Web site for two years.

One such statement—“Guns don’t kill people. Dangerous minorities do”—was posted last year. A recent racist post referred to young Black and Latina/o summer campers who were subjected to vile, racist names at a Huntington Valley swim club.

The suit names the city of Philadelphia, the police department, and a number of unidentified site users as defendants. It also says domelights.com was founded by a Philadelphia police sergeant who uses the screen name “McQ” and “encourages the racially offensive conduct.” Even the word “domelights,” which normally refers to the police lights on top of cruisers, has taken on an “insulting connotation” among Black officers, according to the lawsuit.

Lawyer Brian Mildenberg filed the suit. He charged that by ignoring the Black officers’ complaints, the police department has created a hostile environment for Black officers in the workplace. “The site founder creates this thing and it starts to go viral with white racists over the years,” he said. Mildenberg is also representing some parents of the summer campers in discrimination lawsuits against the Valley Swim Club.

The Web site was created in 2000. Now it has more than 6,000 users and claims to be “devoted to the abolition of political correctness.” The site bills itself as “the voice of the good guys.”

Speaking of Web site supporters, Bilal said, “If you’re a police officer, a sworn officer of the law, and you think that way toward people of color, you shouldn’t be here.”

Mildenberg charged that responsibility for the Web site’s content goes beyond its administrator and falls on the police department, which had been made aware of the problem but failed to act. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey acknowledged that he knew of the Web site. The police department does control who gets Internet access on the job.

Mildenberg said that police policy should also prohibit officers from posting racist material on their own time. The lawsuit notes that regulations require officers “to avoid engaging in racially offensive speech or conduct in public.” Mildenberg noted that there is no First Amendment protection on an employer’s computer. “The employer owns your e-mail, your computer.”

This is not the first time that the Guardian Civic League and the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers have challenged racist Philadelphia police officers and the Fraternal Order of Police. Both Black organizations have also taken public stands calling for a new trial for political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.