Racist e-mail sparks questions on free speech, image of the police

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Until this week, Officer Justin L. Barrett was a young Boston patrolman with no record of misconduct, who had served his country in Iraq and once tackled an armed man inside the Mattapan police station where he worked.

Now, Mayor Thomas M. Menino has called him a cancer and said the 36-year-old should be fired for writing an e-mail comparing a black professor to a “jungle monkey.’’

To many of the city’s black leaders, he is a painful reminder of racial tensions that still exist in the city and within the Police Department. To high-ranking police officials, he is another obstacle in their effort to gain and keep the trust of those in minority neighborhoods, where most of the worst crimes occur.

“This kind of attitude will tar all of our efforts, set us back 30 years,’’ said the Rev. Jeffrey Brown, head of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, which works with police to stop gang violence.

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