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Some Pa. troopers still cling to racist past

Sometimes race becomes an issue in the most unexpected of places. It's true that the Pennsylvania State Police Department has a history of discrimination in the recruitment and retention of minorities. But who would have thought that history would rear its head in response to Gov. Wolf's nomination of Marcus L. Brown, who is white, to be the next State Police commissioner? It was reported earlier this week that Brown found a racist letter inside the mailbox at his home that declared, "No n-word lover will wear my uniform." It can only be surmised that the offensive letter was making reference to Brown's efforts to diversify the Maryland State Police force when he served as its superintendent from 2011 until becoming Pennsylvania's acting commissioner in January.

The identity of the letter writer isn't known, but its content suggests it was written by one of the disgruntled Pennsylvania state troopers who have criticized Wolf's choice to lead them. Their main gripe, at least the main one they have made publicly, is that Brown is an outsider. They have criticized him for wearing a Pennsylvania state trooper uniform when he didn't graduate from the State Police Academy. It's a ludicrous distinction since Brown, a Harrisburg native, has abundant experience as a police officer, starting from his days as patrolman on the streets of San Jose, Calif., in 1989. Later in Baltimore, he was a SWAT commander, chief of the Internal Affairs Division, and a deputy commissioner. And before heading the Maryland state troopers, he spent four years as chief of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. In other words, Brown is qualified to wear any police uniform.

Brown's predecessor, Frank Noonan, who was appointed by Gov. Tom Corbett, didn't attend the State Police Academy either. The former investigator with the FBI and state Attorney General's Office reportedly wore civilian clothes to show respect for the uniformed state troopers. The fact that Noonan wasn't in the habit of wearing uniforms also may have had something to do with that. But Brown has been wearing police uniforms for two dozen years. He says he put on the garb of a Pennsylvania state trooper to "honor the troopers who are on the road every day fighting crime. … It's the uniform they wear, so I think it's very important, as the head of their organization, that I wear it."

Brown's reward for wearing the uniform was not only the racist letter left in his mailbox, but signs posted in the Hampden Township neighborhood where he lives that criticized him for wearing it. Brown was caught on video removing some of the signs, which led to speculation that he might be charged with misdemeanor theft. It was later determined that the signs may have been illegally posted. But that didn't stop Senate Republican Leader Jake Corman of Centre from suggesting that Brown's removal of the signs might indicate that he didn't have the backbone to be the state's top cop. Corman's remark is disappointing since the state Senate must confirm Brown's appointment. Other Republicans have asked Wolf to withdraw Brown's nomination. Of course, all the senators have to do is look at Brown's body of work as a policeman to see backbone has not been a problem for him.

It took backbone for Brown to institute the diversity measures that pushed the Maryland State Police to the forefront of minority recruitment and retention among the Mid-Atlantic states. Under his leadership, that department increased its number of minority senior staff members and the percentage of minorities and women graduating from its police academy. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania State Police Department has seen a dramatic decrease in the number of minority troopers since a 1974 court order requiring more diversity expired in 1999. Today, minorities make up about 6 percent of the force, compared to 12 percent just five years ago.

The racist letter left in Brown's mailbox suggests that some Pennsylvania state troopers think going backwards is just fine. The state Senate must let them know otherwise. When the Law and Justice Committee holds hearings on Brown's nomination, it should examine his qualifications to head the state troopers and not be distracted by any talk about wearing uniforms, or pulling up signs, or another canard, whether Brown would stand up for citizens' Second Amendment rights. A better question is what more he thinks state troopers can do to help reduce the transit of illegal firearms in Pennsylvania. The hearings could reveal legitimate reasons not to confirm Wolf's choice to head the state troopers. But it would be a shame for the senators to base their decision on despicable efforts by diversity dinosaurs to maintain the status quo within a department yet to fully escape from its racist past.

Harold Jackson is editorial page editor for The Inquirer.