Saturday, July 14, 2012

Handling Racism in Government Police Departments

HARBESON: What’s the problem?

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — Now that the Indiana Supreme Court has denied a request for appeal, the City of New Albany may finally have closure on the controversy surrounding the allegedly racist comments made by police officer Jack Messer. So like Barney Fife did when Andy took his single bullet away, I guess Messer will have to accept his 30-day suspension.

I don’t blame Messer at all for trying to get his suspension reversed based on his constitutional right to free speech. As a government employee, he has the ability to file such a suit. (Click here for a pdf of the Indiana Court of Appeals Opinion.) However, this would be a completely different story if he worked in the private voluntary market. As a matter of fact, it may not have even been a “story” at all.

If Messer was an employee of a private security firm, a situation like this would likely have been handled much differently. For example, if, after a “roll call” meeting of security officers, several employees gathered together and Messer made statements that seemed to be racist, it’s doubtful that a co-worker would run off to outside groups or the media.

If he was concerned enough to act, he would likely approach his employer. There’s no guarantee the private employer would do exactly what the complaining co-worker wants but an employer certainly has an incentive to do his best to handle the situation in a manner that will protect the business’ reputation.

Messer does not work for a private firm though. He works for an organization which claims monopoly control over a geographical area. In addition, Messer and his co-workers enforce not just the laws that follow natural logic and have real victims — they also enforce illogical and inconsistent laws that are determined by political whim and personal preference.

This creates an imbalance of power in relationship to other individuals who don’t have the shiny badges and since the “customers” do not voluntarily pay for the government enforcement, the potential for abuse and corruption exists.

Certainly everyone wants to believe that all police officers are consistently virtuous men and women, yet intellectually we know that’s impossible. We have to admit that this imbalance of power is just as likely, if not more so, to draw in people who are the exact opposite. So it makes sense to have policies that hold police officers to an extremely high standard of behavior and whether deserved or not, Messer got caught up in it.

It’s entirely possible that “getting caught up in it” is exactly what happened. Messer has claimed from the start that he was misunderstood and that his point, even if horribly verbalized as Messer himself admits, was really supposed to be about how government policies may have harmed black people more than they helped.

Who really knows if he’s just desperately backtracking, but there is no reason to think he meant otherwise. After all, during the entire time this issue has been in the news, no evidence has been brought forth to show that, in his 27 years of being an officer, he has ever mistreated a person of color while performing his job.

If Messer’s comments were questionable, the reaction by the local NAACP was questionable as well because back when this all started, representatives of this organization behaved as if they knew this man’s exact intent as well as his beliefs and, without even being present to hear the conversation in context, were somehow still able to judge him guilty of racist attitudes.

That’s just wrong. The NAACP representatives were doing the same thing — assuming ill intent without clear evidence — that they accuse police of doing when they pull people over for “driving while black.”

Messer says he would apologize to the person at the roll call who was apparently offended by his comments if he knew who it was. I do find it odd that this individual did not confront Messer directly at the time this all occurred. After all, the police are supposedly trained in conflict resolution so shouldn’t we expect that they would be capable of using their training to actually resolve their own personal conflicts?

Southern Indiana resident Debbie Harbeson never has a problem resolving conflicts with her husband. If you want to know how she does it, you can write to her at


  1. I was a cop for 12 years so I'll let you in on a little secret. You won't find a higher ratio of backstabbers anywhere than you do inside a police department.

  2. " evidence has been brought forth to show that ... he has ever mistreated a person of color while performing his job."

    You mean, beyond the "normal" mistreatment of everyone that is just a part of being an enforcer who is upholding -through violence and kidnapping- counterfeit "laws". Right?

  3. Right Kent. (I like the term counterfeit laws.)