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Levy argues, "If police officers are having these awful thoughts, it's nice to know about it so we can do something about it administratively." He has a list of questions to ask about incidents like these: "Are there morale problems here that need to be addressed? Are there community problems that need to be addressed? Simply by their intemperate speech, they reveal the existence of a problem."
Mary Shelton, the Californian proprietor of the weblog "Five Before Midnight", took a different view after she found herself targeted. In 2005 and 2006, the local activist (she started her blog to monitor how the police department would respond to the end of a court-ordered reform plan) got a spate of threatening and racist blog comments from people claiming to be police officers. "I felt really intimidated," Shelton says. "It makes you look at them differently—is it this police officer, that police officer? ...I think that's one of the most difficult things of all, that you can't put a face on it."
The threats escalated: Shelton recalls that one poster gave details of what she was wearing and what she was doing during the day. Finally, a comment—"The reason [cops] beat up the Mexicans is because it's a fiesta, you beat them and candy comes out"—led her to close comments.
Shelton doesn't know exactly what happened after the department investigated the threats. "The official word was discipline was given out," she says, but California confidentiality laws prevented her from learning more.
She acknowledges that the department's investigation raises free speech concerns: "That's a hard one for me, too." But she argues, "They have to operate under the understanding that they have rules to follow. They're police officers. They have a lot of authority. They have arresting power. They have this expectation that when they speak they will be truthful, because they have to testify in court. And they have to deal with different parts of the community."
Shelton is left wondering. "If they're going around saying these statements anywhere, how do you know that's where it's being left, and it's not impacting their job performance? They have a lot of privileges and rights that come with their position, and there are responsibilities that come with that as well."
Eve Tushnet is a freelance writer in Washington, DC. She blogs at http://eve-tushnet.blogspot.com.