Robert Powell, the Dallas police officer who took 13 minutes to write a traffic ticket for NFL running back Ryan Moats while Moats' mother-in-law lay dying in a nearby hospital bed, resigned Wednesday. Powell, a white officer, was rude and degrading to Moats, an African American. And while Powell's words were not explicitly racist, his intonation and body language arguably were. Good riddance.
Now, 1,500 miles away, some think Philadelphia Police Officer William Thrasher should emulate Powell and resign. Thrasher used a vile word, the N word, while performing his job.
Conventional wisdom holds that anytime the N word is used, it signifies racism. But any viewers of Def Comedy Jam on HBO know that's simplistic. Time and place sometimes matter. If Thrasher's words are parsed in the context of where he said it, recent history, and the perils that confront Philadelphia police officers, would that offer insight or exoneration of his conduct?
Thrasher, 24, is a two-year veteran of the force. He is assigned to the 22d Police District, which encompasses some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city. Sixty-three people were murdered in the 22d District between 2007 and 2008, the years coinciding with Thrasher's service. The district ranks among Philly's deadliest (only the neighboring 25th, which recorded 71 murders over the same time period, had more).
Enter Shannon McDonald, a journalism student at Temple University who received permission to accompany Thrasher on the job and write about the experience. Think riding shotgun, literally.
In the story McDonald filed, Thrasher pulled no punches. McDonald reported that the officer said people living in the area "don't care about each other" and "shoot each other for drugs, for money, for bulls-. All they care about is their reputation. They want to look tough."
"These people are f-ing disgusting. It's like they're animals," Thrasher reportedly said after describing a particularly gruesome murder. Responding to a reported altercation outside a deli, Thrasher told his lieutenant it was "typical n- s-," according to McDonald's account.
The Guardian Civic League, an association of black police officers, has demanded that Thrasher be fired. Certainly, on the surface, the utterance of "typical n- s-" sounds racist. He never should have said it. However, Thrasher, who has been placed on desk duty while the Police Department's Internal Affairs unit investigates, defended his views to McDonald as follows:
"I'm not racist. I work with black people every day. They have jobs, they support their families, they're good people. Most of the people who live in this area are bad people. And they happen to be black."
First, the easy part: Thrasher's use of the N word was inappropriate and indefensible. No person of any color - including black entertainers - should ever utter it.
Not even in the rough-and-tumble world of the 22d Police District - where one of the 63 individuals murdered between 2007 and 2008 was Thrasher's colleague Sgt. Patrick McDonald. There's also the statistic that nobody wishes to confront: All five police officers shot and killed in the line of duty since 2006 were white, and each was slain by a black man.
None of that excuses Thrasher's language. But it does provide context. Context nonexistent in Dallas.
Powell never used any racial slur or epithet during his interaction with Moats and his family. But considering the facts of that altercation, it's hard to deem Powell's behavior as anything other than racially motivated: Moats ran a red light with his flashers on and only after the intersection had cleared. Soon he approached a hospital emergency department, a fact that should have suggested to the police officer that there were exigent circumstances afoot. Powell's unnecessarily abusive behavior reverberated racism despite his never uttering the N word.
But overlooked and most troubling about Thrasher's language as reported in the article is the fact that he felt comfortable enough to say it to a lieutenant and a woman he knew to be an aspiring journalist. His ease in using such repugnant language in the presence of a superior and a stranger is the most insightful element of this story and one that precludes exoneration.
Shannon McDonald made a similar reflection when I asked her about her reaction to Thrasher's words. "Some of the language was harsh, but nothing extraordinary that doesn't get said every day in a large city. My only thought then - and now - is that I was surprised by his openness, given the fact that he knew this was going to be published for my class and I was sitting right next to him with a pen and pad."
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