Melinda Henneberger

This Missouri police officer tweeted bigoted slurs. Why does he still have a badge?

Associated Press file photo

One positive aspect of social media is how much easier all those proud criminals who post video of their misdeeds online have made it for police to catch and convict them.

Another is how much easier those bigots and other bad guys who happen to be cops, and who likewise can’t seem to resist identifying themselves, make it for us to tell who is “good police” and who might not be.

Take the Columbia, Missouri Police Department’s Lt. Brian Tate, who until he was promoted last fall was an internal affairs investigator. In other words, it was his job to fairly investigate allegations of police misconduct by his brother and sister officers. In that position, he would have had to investigate reports of unequal treatment based on race and gender and ethnicity.

So how did Brian D. Tate go about inspiring the confidence of the whole community? Why, by tweeting comments making fun of the poor and the homeless. By posting, under his own name, middle initial and all — you do get points for transparency, Lieutenant — comments stereotyping Asians, disparaging women, and suggesting that there would be less gang violence if only the South had won the Civil War: “Man if the South would have won…”

After the Columbia Daily Tribune shared screenshots of these posts from Tate, the department launched an internal affairs investigation. Yes, at least initially to be conducted by officers who were until recently his closest colleagues. A city spokesman says Tate will stay on the job — and on the street, even — while that’s going on. And this might take a while to sort out, because they want to be thorough.

But meanwhile, how is someone on the lower rungs of the economic ladder supposed to have anything approaching full confidence in a man who posted what he clearly thought was a comic picture of a homeless woman caught out in the rain? He seemed to enjoy mocking her situation: “Walking holding trash bags around her legs #classic front seat in game of life!”

How are those who don’t share Tate’s conservative political views supposed to think they’ll get justice from someone who has repeatedly called them names online? “It’s a shame I live in a town with such libtards in my backyard.”

He responded with one word to a “Fox & Friends” story about then-President Barack Obama commending Black Lives Matter: “Disgraceful.”

His disdain of women is not exactly subtle. “The moment where you can’t tell if a girl is dressed up like a slut for Halloween or she’s just in her normal clothes.”

Tate’s ageism and feelings about class and ethnicity have also been shared, and without any effort to show some class: “Good choice putting $4000 rims on your 1998 Honda Civic. That’s like Betty White going out and getting her tits done.” And: “Why am I not surprised ... it took a South Korean woman 960 tries to pass her driving test.”

When I asked Columbia spokesman Steven Sapp about how an internal affairs investigation into an officer who only left the division a few months ago was supposed to work, he said, “They have policies and blinders in place” to prevent bias. Did Tate know that?

Surely the lieutenant, who’s in charge of a patrol division, won’t be working with the public while he’s being investigated? Not necessarily, Sapp said: “We’re short of boots on the ground; lieutenants are not at their desks” all the time.

The issue, he said, is “where First Amendment rights and social media policy collide.” Both are straightforward. You can make bigoted remarks, but not on the public payroll in a job investigating bigotry.

After 18 years on the job, Tate must be familiar with Policy 1058, which warns against social media messages that undermine the department’s mission. He said in an email that he couldn’t explain himself right now because “Department policy prohibits me from doing so during an active IA investigation.”

One stereotype he might take exception to is that of the cop with rustic racial views, and it is unfair to his colleagues that he’s pumping new life into that one.

Melinda Henneberger is a columnist and member of The Star’s editorial board. She has covered crime, local and state government, hospitals, social services, prisons and national politics. For 10 years, she was a reporter for The New York Times in New York, Washington, D.C. and Rome. In 2019, she was a Pulitzer finalist for commentary and received the Mike Royko Award for Commentary and Column Writing from the News Leaders Association.
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