The document was apparently sent Jan. 16 from the work e-mail address of Sgt. Rodney Hicok of Fort Dodge.
It was addressed to a variety of recipients in and outside the department, with the subject line, "The new fashion statement for mugshots!"
An image with the e-mail purportedly shows police mug shots of 15 people. All are wearing T-shirts or buttons with President Barack Obama's picture; all but two of them appear to be black.
An accompanying note says: "I've seen some 'unique individuals' aka S---HEADS wearing these type shirts myself He has quite a fan base. Nice to know that the low-lifes are getting involved in politics now."
Iowa Public Safety Commissioner Gene Meyer said initial inquiries turned up enough evidence that the e-mail "emanated from" Hicok to trigger his placement on leave while the agency's professional standards bureau investigates.
Penalties for departmental misconduct can range from a verbal reprimand up to dismissal, including a suspension of one to 30 days.
Basu: E-mail, officer's leave force hard questions
REKHA BASU • firstname.lastname@example.org • January 23, 2009
Many voters in overwhelmingly white Iowa take particular pride in having given Barack Obama his first win as a presidential candidate. But it would be naive to think everyone's on board, or that prejudices will evaporate now that the nation has its first black president.
This week, an e-mail about Obama that carried racial overtones resulted in an Iowa State Patrol sergeant with more than 20 years on the force being placed on paid administrative leave.
Sgt. Rodney Hicok of Fort Dodge was ordered on leave while the Iowa Department of Public Safety investigates a message sent out under his name and apparently from his work e-mail address on Jan. 16.
Addressed to a variety of recipients in and outside the department, the e-mail shows police mug shots of 15 people, all but two of whom appear to be black, wearing Obama T-shirts or insignia. It says they are Chicago Police Department mug shots (Chicago is Obama's home city) and were originally sent by a Chicago police officer.
The message says: "I've seen some 'unique individuals' aka S---HEADS wearing these type shirts myself ... Nice to know that the low-lifes are getting involved in politics now."
The pictures appear to have been pulled from thesmokinggun.org Web site, which claims to get quirky government documents using Freedom of Information requests.
"Anyone out there have any mugshots of people wearing any President Bush or John McCain shirts?" the e-mail asks. "Didn't think so!!"
A recipient of one of these forwarded e-mails, upset that a state employee might be using taxpayer-financed equipment to send such "garbage," forwarded it to me Wednesday. Hicok could not be reached for comment. One department staffer whose name appeared as a recipient of the e-mail said he couldn't recall it, but that he has received jokes from Hicok in the past. He typically deletes jokes without reading them because they clutter his BlackBerry's inbox, he said.
Iowa Public Safety Commissioner Gene Meyer acted swiftly. He said he wasn't aware of the e-mail until my call, and would investigate.
"If all this proves to be true," Meyer said, "I'm saddened and disappointed and disturbed. It certainly does not reflect the professionalism we expect from all of our employees, and especially our peace officers."
Meyer said the matter will be a department priority. He added, "If it's true, we're going to deal with it."
No law prevents people from making so-called jokes or other callous remarks in private, and the Constitution guarantees everyone the right to criticize their government.
But this matter, if the facts bear out, goes beyond the impropriety of sending comments in bad taste over a state computer on state time to state employees and others. The partisan and racist overtones raise questions about the impartiality of someone who wears a uniform and badge for the state. There is the disturbing prospect of this officer's attitudes affecting his actions in the field.
Is his apparently negative and demeaning view of Obama supporters, and/or the largely black group of them portrayed as lawbreakers, indicative of how he treats certain suspects or people seeking police help?
Is the e-mail sender inclined to be harder on, or more suspicious of, minorities or Obama enthusiasts? Are apparent McCain or Bush fans or whites more likely to get fair treatment from him?
By using such foul, degrading language about people booked by police, the sender also ignores the constitutional proviso that everyone is innocent until proven guilty and entitled to be treated with dignity.
Iowa police agencies, like many around the country, have been accused of differential treatment of minorities, whether in targeting them for traffic stops because of race, or treating them with excessive force as suspects. And the state of Iowa is currently the subject of a class-action lawsuit alleging discrimination against black people in government employment.
Meyer noted that every officer recently underwent eight hours of diversity training. He says if there is a racist mind-set at play, it's just one individual, and doesn't reflect the whole department.
One can only hope that's true. At least Meyer is to be commended for saying that dealing with this matter will be a priority.
The outpouring of excitement we witnessed over Obama's inauguration indicates that most Americans were ready and eager to see the highest color bar broken and the nation live up to its promise of equality.
And many people are working to build greater trust between police and minority communities, an issue with years of accumulated baggage and stereotypes on both sides, as the Oscar-winning film "Crash" well illustrated.
But there's more work to be done, and it should go beyond mandates from department heads. It would be nice to see everyone on the receiving end of such an e-mail tell the sender, and everyone else on the list, how inappropriate and offensive it was.
I love Rehka Basu! And having lived in Fort Dodge, it's the racist armpit of Iowa, IMHO. You couldn't pay me a billion dollars to live there again.