Last week, three Wilmington police officers were fired after being caught on tape making some of the most vile and racist statements imaginable. Unbelievably, their desire to gun down Black people in a race war was just one entry in a litany of shocking and despicable comments.
Of course, we support the Wilmington Police Department’s decision to immediately fire the officers and make their statements public. The district attorney’s office also said it is investigating all pending cases in which the officers played a major role and has already dismissed 89 of them. In addition, the office said it might be willing to negotiate convictions in which the officers played a part. It’s still unknown how many people these racist officers sent to prison.
These are necessary actions, but they address only cases in which these three officers were involved. Stopping there would be like finding a few cancer cells and not checking to see if the disease has spread. If we look only at these three officers, we could be missing a far broader problem.
The officers worked for the Wilmington police department for decades and seemed very comfortable voicing the most brazen racist ideas in casual conversation. It’s likely that others knew about their attitudes toward Black citizens, but as far as we know, no one reported them.
Their conversation was captured by chance when one of them accidentally activated a patrol car’s recorder. This single fragment prompts a host of questions:
How many other conversations like this took place, and who was involved?
More importantly, what were the real-life consequences of these racist attitudes? What was the racial breakdown of the people they arrested? How many people did they injure, terrorize, or kill on the job? How many wrongful convictions resulted from their work? How many complaints of excessive force have been filed against them?
Did these attitudes affect the prosecutions of the four people — three Black and one Native American — on death row from New Hanover County?
It’s time for a thorough investigation, not just of these officers but of every Wilmington police officer. Only once we see the full scope of the problem can we begin to solve it.
Police officers, even those caught on tape fantasizing about killing innocent Black people, invariably say they are “not racist.” Regardless of individual officers’ intentions, the data will show whether they are contributing to the problem of racist policing.
In 1898, Wilmington made history for being home to the worst racist massacre in North Carolina. Now, let it make history for a different reason. Let this incident be the start of a real reckoning with race and policing, one that can serve as a model for other departments.