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Can Brutal and Racist Cops Change to Become More 'Sensitive'?

The Boston policeman who called Gates a "banana-eating jungle monkey" had taken racial-sensitivity training classes. It's not clear they work.

It's too late now for Justin Barrett, the Boston cop who shot a racial slur straight into the heat of the controversy surrounding the arrest of Henry Louis Gates last month.

Unlike the Gates incident -- which many Americans insisted had nothing to do with race -- in this case, the racism was beyond dispute. Weighing in on Gates, Barrett declared, via mass e-mail: "If I was the officer (Gates) verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC deserving of his belligerent noncompliance." (OC, of course, is pepper spray.)

Reprisals were swift. Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis "immediately stripped Barrett of his gun and badge," according to local media. "These racist opinions and feelings have no place in this department or in our society and will not be tolerated," he said.

Boston Mayor Tom Menino called for Barrett's dismissal, telling reporters he intends to "rid our department of the cancer" that is racial hatred. "All the police officers I know don't condone any of that," he said.

On July 29, Barrett apologized for his remark, calling it "a poor choice of words." But it wasn't enough to save his job.

Now, he's suing the police department, police commissioner and mayor, accusing them of "conspiring to intentionally inflict emotional distress" and "conspiring to intentionally interfere with [his] property rights, due process rights and civil rights."

Barrett's defenders have argued that he shouldn't lose his job over an e-mail he sent from his personal computer, while off duty, but in fact the official response was exactly as it should be. Basic respect for minority communities should be a condition of employment for anyone tasked with protecting the public (let alone carrying a gun). Yet, until now, such a zero-tolerance approach has been the exception rather than the rule, to even far more egregious -- and sometimes deadly -- incidents of racial bias in police ranks.

A more typical response might have been for Barrett to be subjected to some kind of racial sensitivity training -- that is, in addition the "extensive training in racial-profiling prevention" he received in his police academy days.

"People go through these courses and they pass them and you don't know what they are going to do in a situation," Menino told reporters last month.

Indeed, Officer James Crowley, who arrested Gates, not only passed racial-profiling classes -- for the past five years, he has taught them. Yet one of Gates's initial demands following his arrest -- along with an apology, which was never granted -- was a prescription of racial-sensitivity training for him and his fellow officers. "We just need to find a way to re-establish that regular routine of engagement and dialogue with police," Harvard law professor Charles Ogeltree (who represents Gates) told reporters.

In Boston, the need to address racism in the ranks, overt or otherwise, could hardly be more pressing. Even as the police commissioner "tried to distance the department from the e-mail, saying it reflected the 'racist opinions and feelings' of one individual," Boston Globe reporter Maria Cramer wrote, meanwhile, "Larry Ellison, a Boston detective and the president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, said the incident reflects a subtly racist culture that permeates the department."

He pointed to several incidents in the last year, including a white officer who urinated in the water bottle of a black female officer and another who posted an article, "Slavery: Best Thing that Ever Happened to Blacks."

Yesterday, Ellison and other officials learned that someone had scrawled graffiti in the bathroom of a Charlestown police station. The toilet has two buttons, one for flushing liquids and another for flushing solid waste. Next to the buttons, someone had written Deval Patrick and Barack Obama.

"This is not an isolated incident," Ellison said of the e-mail.

It seems likely Boston police have some form of sensitivity training in their future. The same goes for police officers in Fort Worth, Texas, where cops brutally raided a gay bar earlier this summer, sending at least one man to the hospital. (Police Chief Jeffrey Halstead said "he will implement sensitivity training that specifically addresses LGBT issues," according to the Dallas Voice.)