Does the sending of racist texts fall below appropriate standards of professional behavior for police? The Wichita Citizen’s review Boards says yes.
Obviously disturbed by what they saw and read in the questionable threads of text messages among a group of Wichita Police officers and one Sedgwick County Sheriff’s officer, members of Wichita’s Citizen’s Review Board issued a scathing report this week that recommended a number of major policy changes within the department as well as citing the need for a cultural change within the department.
The eight threads of messages, which include more than 200 individual texts, included a lot of racist remarks, used derogatory names for racial and ethnic groups, and included memes featuring the Confederate flag and other references that seemed to tie some of them to racial extremist groups. In addition, the texts included homophobic slurs, profane language and sexual remarks.
The officers joked about shooting and killing people as well as sharing their joy of tasing and beating citizens. However, the largest portion of their angst was toward former WPD Chief Gordon Ramsay, who was often the brunt of their negative, profane and demeaning texts.
Created by the Wichita City Council in October 2017, the Citizen’s Review Board is charged with advising WPD on community concerns, policy development, and allegations of misconduct. The recommendations followed the board’s review of eight closed disciplinary cases involving 12 WPD officers. All of the officers were members of the department’s SWAT Team and include a captain, four sergeants, one detective and six officers. Most of the text messages took place between May 2018 and February 2021.
Eight cases were reviewed, involving 12 WPD officers. While the text messaging subject to review took place as early as December 2015, most of the reviewed messaging occurred between May 2018 and February 2021. It is important to note that not all officers participated in all the messaging. The common denominator was a sheriff’s officer who was the link to all the communications and whose cell phone was searched in an unrelated crime investigation. The only text messaging available for review were those found on the sheriff’s officer’s phone.
The Citizen’s Review Board (CRB) was designed as a go-between to help improve the police department’s outreach and relationship with the community. What they typically do is listen to reports on the actions taken in closed WPD disciplinary cases. The board does not have any power to make changes in the discipline handed down. However, from their review, they can recommend policy changes, which the department may or may not act on.
Up until now, you would not have been aware of any of their recommended policy changes because the ordinance creating the board required their recommendations to remain pilot. However, this week, the City Council approved a change in the ordinance to allow the board to issue a public report on their findings.
Here’s a summary of CRB policy change recommendations to the City of Wichita.
• Inadequate Punishment The CRB didn’t believe the punishment handed down by WPD was adequate and expressed their concerns that the Fraternal Order of Police, the police union, had unduly influenced the level of punishment, driving it down and recommended further review of the department’s discipline process as part of a planned external review of the department.
In all of the reviewed cases, the initial disposition was Conduct Unbecoming, a serious charge that carries a “D” penalty, with the expectation of a suspension on a first offense. However, all of the charges were eventually reduced. Again, it was something that concerned the CRB. One case was reduced to Failure to Use Good Judgment, a “B” violation with the employee receiving a written reprimand. On all the other cases, the final disposition was Failure to Use Good Judgment with each of those officers given Non-Disciplinary Education, Coaching and Mentoring.
Of the officers, two (the captain and a sergeant) have retired, one (an officer) resigned and all of the others remain in the department.
• Insufficient Code of Ethics While WPD has a Code of Ethic and regulations that help define what is acceptable and unacceptable conduct, the CRB says clearly what they have in place may not be enough. In addition to emphasizing in training that police officers must comply with the code of ethics, the board recommends amending the department’s social media and personnel policies to make it clear there is “no private messaging exception” to regulations prohibiting Unbecoming Conduct.
The officers had argued these were their private texts guarded by their First Amendment rights.
• Use This For Training They suggested using these texts in training as a basis for discussion of what is expected of a WPD officer and as part of an ongoing dialogue on racial bias, use of force, and related training.
• Duty to Intervene Policy With none of the officers reporting the content of the texts as wrong, the board recommends WPD consider a duty to intervene or mandatory reporting requirement when conduct is observed that falls below appropriate standards of professional behavior.
• Develop Culture of Caring Board members felt the publicity around the cases have jeopardized the department’s longs tanding efforts to improve relationships with the community. To help build public confidence in the department, the board recommends developing a culture that demonstrates courtesy, respect and dignity to the public.
• Watch for Affiliation With Racist Groups As pointed out early, some of the messages and images in the texts suggested affiliation with or support for groups that promote or are known for racial bias or discrimination. While they didn’t find the information conclusive, the board said the department must stay alert to these concerns and develop a training protocol to address officer affiliation or support for groups that advocate or are aligned with activities and beliefs inconsistent with the public service obligation of a WPD officer.
• Expedite Conduct Reviews While the texts were discovered in early 2021, it took until early 2022 for the closed disciplinary cases to be presented to the CRB. They requested WPD look for ways to expedite conduct reviews consistent with its contractual obligation under the FOP contract and the rights afforded officers under review.
• Brady/Giglio Training Concerned that some of the texts reflected racial bias that could impair an officer’s ability to perform his or her duties under the federal Brady/Giglio disclosure requirements. Under these requirements, a prosecutor must disclose any evidence that “casts a substantial doubt upon the accuracy” of an officer called as a witness for a law enforcement agency. The city’s training includes discussion of Brady/Giglio issues, but the CRB recommends WPD review its training in this area to make sure it reinforces the point that actions or comments, public or private, reflecting potential racial bias or creating the appearance of bias may be disqualifying factors for service as a police officer.