- Carolyne Zinko
Cops’ Racist Texts Expose the Costly Impact of Harmful Speech in the Workplace
Police are supposed to be good guys who protect citizens, keep communities safe, and treat the public considerately. That’s what makes the recent news out of Antioch, Calif., a San Francisco Bay Area suburb, so disturbing.
Laws matter, but so do the words we use. From 2019 to 2022, more than two dozen officers, detectives and supervisors sent text messages to each other that used the “n” word to describe local residents; called other residents “faggots;” bragged about beating their suspects; and labeled people as “gorillas,” “monkeys,” and “water buffalo” while trading photos of animals to illustrate their points.
The text scandal came to light recently as part of an investigation by the FBI and the Contra Costa County District Attorney’s office into allegations of bribery, fraud, excessive force and drug distribution by Antioch police and officers in a neighboring police department. The officers’ phones were seized in 2022.
It’s a breathtaking lack of respect, especially in a city of 115,000 where the mayor is Black, the police chief is Black, and 35% of residents are Latino, 20% are Black and 12% are Asian. Were the officers who were caught in a small minority? Or were they just the ones who were caught? Nearly one-quarter of the department is now on paid leave, notes the San Francisco Chronicle, and the scandal might involve up to half of the department’s 100 employees, reports the Associated Press.
One officer promised to buy a prime rib dinner for anyone who would “40” the city’s mayor, Lamar Thorpe, a reference to a .40mm less lethal launcher, a weapon that fires rubber bullets and bean bags. The message went to 22 people, including five sergeants, one detective, and 16 officers.
Police officers joked about violating citizens’ civil rights and about use of force in making arrests. “I’m only stopping them cuz they black. F–k them. Kill each other,” an officer said.
The same officer said to a second officer: “I was bummed that beast was so fat cuz he didn’t bruise up very fast.” He was referring to a Black man. The other officer responded, “It never looks good on black guys.” The first officer replied, “Just like jobs and responsibilities.”
“See all the riots in LA?” one officer texted a colleague. “No I didn’t, LOL,” said the second officer. “For the gorilla that died,” the first officer replied, a reference to George Floyd, who was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer two days earlier.
“I heard, 101 bottom line it doesn’t matter some gorilla killed another gorilla,” an officer texted another.
Investigators described the language on officers’ personal mobile phones as “racist, homophobic and derogatory text communications,” according to two highly redacted 21-page and a 14-page reports of transcripts that were recently released to the media and obtained by Reflect.
Although the language is not illegal, it’s clear the words that employees and teams use can have serious impacts both inside and outside a company or organization.
For an organization’s customers — in this case, the residents of Antioch — such harmful language erodes trust, damages the organization’s reputation, and diminishes the likelihood of cooperation between police and citizens. Residents can’t boycott the police department, as consumers might do with a company’s product. But in Antioch, they are staging public protests as a sign they’ve lost faith in the criminal justice system. Two Bay Area attorneys have filed a federal lawsuit against the Antioch Police Department, and two Bay Area congressional representatives have asked U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland to investigate, reports the Mercury News of San Jose, Calif.
Meanwhile, harmful language on the job can create a toxic work environment for employees that results in decreased motivation, morale, and teamwork. It can also lead to high levels of stress, absenteeism, and turnover.
The heart of our mission at Reflect AI is to help teams work collaboratively and effectively. Our AI communications coach is trained to provide people an objective view of what they’re saying and how that might be interpreted by others, giving them an opportunity to adjust their tone and content in real time.
As an experiment, we ran some of the officers’ text messages through Reflect AI.
“Murder suspect in custody and that a–hole made me run”
“I pulled out and into the Los Medanos lot. The fat f-cks were eye-f-cking me.”
Caution: Words have power
"I hate these idiots"
Angry? Think how your words sound.
"The cops or the n—-s?"
Really want to say this? Thought this through? Your words may be abusive.
"We managed to set up a perimeter and he got his ass whooped in the backyard and I field goal kicked his head"
Tone? Really want to say this? Angry? Thought this through?
"No, we can do that — just no chokes. I tried to kick him unconscious"
Are you angry?
"Josh isn't a racist …he just hates women"
Is this appropriate?
Audits of the police department’s internal affairs unit, the department culture, and hiring and promotional practices were unanimously approved this week by the Antioch City Council, and the District Attorney’s office has been asked to dismiss all cases involving the Antioch police and the public defender’s office, according to the Associated Press.
Officers could face indictment. And the police chief, who joined the department only a year ago, according to CBS News, is now tasked with rebuilding the department from the ground up, which could require federal oversight.
Mother Teresa famously noted that "Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless." Unkind words can also be memorable, and costly. That’s something to think about before hitting the send button.
Carolyne Zinko is the Editorial Director of Alphy and Reflect AI.
Reflect by Alphy®, our AI-powered coach, helps you and your team communicate in a more productive way. Reflect analyzes communication from all angles — ageism, sexism, racism, confidence, sentiment, apologies, and more — to make you aware of your words, tone, and speech across all your devices, from desktop to mobile.