Boston Police Officer and National Guardsman Justin Barrett has gone public to deny he is a racist and apologize to professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. for repeatedly calling Gates a “banana-eating jungle monkey,” insisting that “I have so many friends of every type of culture and race you can name. I am not a racist.”
Even if Barrett is a non-racist who engages vile racist rants, his email is a chilling and disturbing rant by a police officer. In his email to fellow National Gaurdsmen, Barrett declared that if he had “been the officer he verbally assaulted like a banana-eating jungle monkey, I would have sprayed him in the face with OC (oleorosin capsicum, or pepper spray) deserving of his belligerent non-compliance.” He called Gates a jungle monkey three times and used the term a fourth time to refer to a columnist’s (Yvonne Abraham) writing. He insisted he was “not a racist but I am prejudice [sic] towards people who are stupid and pretend to stand up and preach for something they say is freedom but it is merely attention because you do not get enough of it in your little fear-dwelling circle of on-the-bandwagon followers.”
Putting aside the obvious question of whether you can use shocking racist terms without being a racist, Barrett also believes that it is appropriate for an officer to pepper spray citizens who are belligerent. He seems poorly suited for public service.
However, there is the issue of free speech. These statements were made to national guardsmen and friends in what appears to be his personal time. An officer should be allowed to hold racist views so long as he does not allow those views to interfere or affect his performance as an officer. We have seen an increasing level of disciplinary actions against students (here, teachers (here and here and here and here and here and here), police officers (here and here) and other public employees (here) for their private conduct or views. Barrett’s racist rant presents a difficult question. Both his use of such prejudicial language and his view of the proper use of force raise serious question over his judgment. Ironically, while he is willing to pepper spray citizens for their use of free speech, he may be protected by the very rights that he is willing to disregard as an officer. Yet, many officers are likely to have obnoxious or unpopular personal beliefs. Like other citizens, they are entitled to be hateful, ignorant, and obnoxious in their private time.
The one claim that the city could make to hold Barrett accountable is that he identified himself as an officer and expressed his erroneous view on what officers should do in such a circumstance. In doing so, he undermined the department in dealing with citizens and brought ridicule upon the force. Yet, it is also clear from the email that he is speaking in his personal capacity.
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