Asking the Police Department to face up to its demons

Rochelle Bilal, Guardian Civic League president, became the target of insults and threats on the Web site after her organization filed a lawsuit over racist and abusive comments on the site.

Free-speech protections may be an obstacle to a black police officers’ group headed to court over racial and sexist comments posted on an unofficial online forum for city cops.

But the Guardian Civic League is right to point out what appears to be a a festering problem with race relations within the Philadelphia Police Department’s ranks.

The black officers’ contention in a federal lawsuit is that the online chatter creates “a racially discriminatory and hostile employment environment.” There’s no free-speech right to that sort of behavior, so the city could find itself liable.

The comments posted on are anonymous, but the Web site is widely regarded as a destination for police and firefighters, as well as observers.

To whatever extent the rough-and-tumble rhetoric — and outright offensive remarks — reflect views of actual officers, the Web traffic tarnishes the Police Department’s image. That would be unwelcome p.r. for any big-city department, but Philadelphia in particular can ill-afford it due to its rocky history of working with inner-city communities.

Even if the offensive and obnoxious patter on represents the handiwork of a relatively few provocative commentators — as some officers insist — the negative impact on minority officers is no less troubling.

That said, it may not be easy, or even possible, for Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey to fully tame this corner of the Web. Even if were shuttered tomorrow, there would be nothing stopping another online forum from cropping up.

Credit Ramsey for restricting the Web site from workplace computers, where insensitive postings by police personnel could well cross a legal line. Beyond that, the Web site controversy provides Ramsey with an opening to take new steps to deal with racial tension within his department.

It may be too much to hope that hardened police veterans might benefit from sensitivity training. Consider the officer recently quoted making blatantly racist remarks in front of a Temple University journalism student who accompanied him on patrol.

But at least recruit training at the Police Academy would offer an opportunity to set high standards of police conduct — including acknowledgement of existing departmental prohibitions on racially offensive behavior.

From a tactical standpoint, it makes even more sense for the department to confront its demons. Officers won’t get greater cooperation from witnesses in largely minority neighborhoods if citizens suspect that the trash talk on represents the view of most cops.