Monkey Business in the Squad Room?

We have all done things in our lives, both professional and personal, that we wish we could take back. Mostly, it's those things that we get caught doing that we regret the most. Such was the case this past week at the Port St. Lucie, Florida Police Department.

Horsing around, or in this case, monkeying around, has caused three detectives in this department's elite "Special Investigation Unit" to resign, while two other detectives have been suspended without pay for five days each.

According to a local newspaper report in the Fort Pierce Tribune on December 29, 2006, these investigators discovered a web page at that featured a series of chimpanzees, that could be used to create emails, both written and audio. The web page allowed the user to either type in a message, call in a recorded message via telephone, or input messages directly via microphone. The messages could then be simply played back for the user's own enjoyment, or they could be e-mailed to others. Fortunately, these officers did not e-mail their talking chimp remarks to anyone else. Rather, it appears that they simply played the messages back to entertain themselves, for a total of 11-hours over two days.

I visited the web page and quickly saw how entertaining it was. The adorable chimps could be dressed up in cute outfits or transported to exotic locations, all with graphics that are top-notch. All that's missing is YOUR MESSAGE. This web site could be harmless fun and recreation when used in the privacy of your own home, but here's what happened in Port St. Lucie:

According to Officer Robert Vega, Public Relations Officer for the PSLPD, the officers had all been assigned to the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), which has been responsible for the detection the 60 or so marijuana grow houses in Port St. Lucie within the past year. This has resulted in the seizure of millions of dollars worth of homes, property, and money for the City of Port St. Lucie.

Officer Vega told me that during the two-days of "Monkey Mail" abuse, the SIU had been undergoing a change in command supervision, with the new supervisor attending meetings and getting up to speed on the unit's mission and current cases. This apparently led to some downtime from their regular cases. Beware of idle minds!

"These are real good guys," said Vega, "but they got carried away." About the three who resigned, Vega commented, "It was the racial remarks that ended their careers." Apparently, the two investigators who only received suspensions used vulgarity, but not racial slurs.

So, what did these officers actually say to get themselves into so much trouble? A Palm Beach Post article about this story in December attributed the use of racial slurs such as "tar baby," "yard ape" and "spearchucker" to the three detectives who were forced to resign. Again, these messages were not sent to anyone, yet they were played back aloud in the squad room.

Commenting about the circumstances, PSL Police Chief John Skinner told the Ft Pierce Tribune, "There will be no racism or prejudice tolerated in the Port St. Lucie Police Department."

Cops are famous for locker room antics and horseplay. Our sense of humor is certainly different from that of the general public, and is oftentimes misunderstood. Simple things like referring to DOAs at fire scenes as "crispy critters" may be seen as insensitive to outsiders, but such offbeat humor and comments have been described by psychologists as defense mechanisms.

Yet, we do egg each other on once in a while, sometimes with bad consequences. In the 1998 Broad Channel, Queens, NY, Labor Day Parade, one of the homemade floats featured white men wearing blackface and Afro wigs, and was titled "Black to the Future - Broad Channel in 2098." Three white participants on the float, two city firefighters and a city police officer, were later fired from their jobs. Unlike this current Port St. Lucie monkey business, these Broad Channel employees were "off-duty." Like the PSL situation, racial comments were the cause for their firings.

Yes, the Internet has provided investigators with amazing tools, but it has also brought with it some very dark places. E-mail, porn sites, chat rooms, online shopping, have all caused grief not just for cops, but also for workers in all fields. At work you should always understand that someone might be monitoring everything that is happening on the agency's computers. That is what happened in Port St. Lucie. No inflammatory e-mails were sent to anyone. No co-workers dropped a dime. I'm sure it seemed harmless enough at the time, but the city's management information system has its own computers that monitor usage. According to Officer Vega, "The City's MIS picked up the unusual activity and notified the lieutenant, who notified the chief, who notified internal affairs." The rest, as they say, is now history.

No longer do just the walls have ears. The computers have eyes, and long memories, too. The "delete" button may remove files or e-mails from your view, but unless you are skilled in the workings of the mysterious digital world, your deleted files will be there for computer forensic investigators to find. If your computer is on a network, well, fuggetaboudit. It's been backed up, both on-site, off-site, on tape drives, discs, and who knows where else.

So what can you do with downtime in a detective squad? I suggest that you can work on your skills. Pick up a book like Practical Homicide Investigation by Vernon Geberth, or Dr. Henry Lee's Crime Scene Handbook. There are dozens of books on criminal investigations, including my own Criminal Investigations for the Professional Investigator that cover many different investigative specialties. If you don't like reading books and need to be near a computer, there are thousands of legitimate uses you can put Google to. Type in "Criminal Interview Technique" and see what's new, or "use of psychics" to see an article about paranormal detectives. Counterfeiting, narcotics investigations, sex crimes, and identity fraud are but a few of the disciplines you can learn about. It is possible to monkey around in your spare time, and learn something too.

It's ironic that a web page ended these officers' careers.