Words as Weapons
By BOB HERBERT
Just days after Don Imus was taken off the air for a slur hurled at members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team, a police sergeant conducting a roll call at a precinct in Brooklyn is reported to have called the three female officers in the room “hos” as he gave them an order to stand up.
The women, two of whom are black and one a Latina, refused to stand.
Another officer, unable to resist the great “fun” of mocking his female colleagues, is reported to have called out, “No, sergeant, not just hos, but nappy-headed hos.”
The women said they were stunned almost to the point of disbelief by the comments. They were the only women in the gathering of 17 police officers in the room, including the supervising sergeant. There was a sickening quality to the moment. The women said they felt violated, hurt and humiliated.
The incident occurred on April 15, a Sunday, at the 70th Precinct, which gained national notoriety in 1997 as the precinct in which Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, was sodomized by police officers with a broken broomstick.
The three women, Tronnette Jackson, 36, Karen Nelson, 31, and Maria Gomez, 29, said they were attending a routine roll call session when Sgt. Carlos Mateo, referring to them, said, “Stand up, hos.”
The Imus controversy, in which Mr. Imus had referred to the Rutgers players as “nappy-headed hos,” was still big news and on everyone’s mind. The three women remained seated.
They said another police officer, Ralph Montanez, then chimed in: “No, sergeant, not just hos, but nappy-headed hos.”
The women remained silent, and seated.
Sergeant Mateo is reported to have said, “Jackson and Gomez, why aren’t you standing?”
Another police officer said to the sergeant, “They are offended and they are protesting that you called them hos.”
This is just one example of the myriad ways in which racist and sexist comments like Mr. Imus’s help to poison the atmosphere all around us. Another example occurred two days prior to this incident when a narcotics sergeant in Queens is alleged to have “jokingly” said to a black female officer, “Don’t give me no lip or I’ll have to call you a nappy-headed ho.”
One of the toughest points to get across in this society is that racism and sexism are always contemptible, and are never harmless. The targets of racist and sexist comments should not just swallow the insults. They should react as if they’d been slapped in the face.
The three women in the 70th Precinct case have decided to fight back. Their initial complaint to Sergeant Mateo, immediately after the roll call, was brushed aside, they said. They then complained to the precinct’s integrity control officer and hired a lawyer, Bonita Zelman.
This morning they will file a complaint in federal court, asserting that the degrading comments at the roll call amounted to illegal discrimination against them based on their gender and ethnic background. This is not a small matter. It’s fair to wonder, for example, how eager a supervisor might be to recommend a major promotion for an employee he refers to as a “ho.”
“We have tremendous concern about the effect of language like this on women police officers,” said Ms. Zelman, “particularly women of color trying to make their way in the largely white male bureaucracy of a police department.”
Also concerned about the effect of language like this is the police commissioner, Ray Kelly. Discussing the 70th Precinct case, he told me yesterday that he found the comments “despicable.” He declined to go into much detail because the matter is being investigated by the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity division.
But the department let it be known that Sergeant Mateo had been transferred out of the 70th Precinct and would no longer be serving in a supervisory position. Both he and Officer Montanez could be subject to disciplinary charges.
Commissioner Kelly said he found the entire matter “very, very disturbing” because the city had worked hard over the past few years to make the Police Department a place where women and minorities “could feel at home.”
The Queens narcotics sergeant is also likely to face disciplinary action by the department, which has been infected, like other organizations around the country, with what Ms. Zelman calls the “Imus virus.”