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N-word a negative with police

Published May 16, 2007


The rules are clear. Chief Chuck Harmon says the Police Department doesn't tolerate any racial slurs or racially charged language among employees.

That strict approach recently led the department to fire seven cadets in the police academy, including two black cadets.

The reason, according to several cadets: The two black cadets were overheard using the n-word in conversation. The other cadets were fired for other reasons.

"I understood where he (Harmon) was coming from" said Nick Samuels, 29, one of the black cadets. "Yet still at the same time I didn't think much understanding was given to the fact that by no means am I racist or practicing hate or anything like that."

The incident shows an unusual aspect of strict rules governing harassment in big, public organizations like city governments and police departments: Sometimes, they can penalize the very members of minority groups they may have been originally intended to protect.

"A police department is a very public institution and it needs to have very good relationships with all its constituencies, " said Juan Perea, a professor at the University of Florida's Levin College of Law. "It seems to me not just an understandable rule but a very good rule to prohibit racially insensitive or racist language."

But Perea also pointed out that there were clearly differences between black cadets using the n-word in a friendly way, and two white cadets using the same word in a derogatory manner.

Although employers may have some leeway in considering nuances like the race of employees and cultural factors when enforcing rules, Perea noted that "big organizations aren't very good at implementing things like that."

In other words, it's easier to have a blanket rule that's uniformly enforced, especially for public institutions like police departments that are under constant scrutiny.

The St. Petersburg Police Department says it cannot provide details on the firings until an internal affairs investigation is completed. A chain of command board is scheduled for Thursday. The department said all the cadets, who were employed on a probationary basis, were fired for "conduct unbecoming an employee."

The other fired black cadet, Thaddeus Boston, 30, could not be reached for comment.

Samuels, a father of three, said friends in the local black community have supported him after learning of his dismissal and told him that his treatment had been "unjust."

Another complication is the debate within the black community over the use of the n-word.

"There certainly is a history of the word's use that is connected to white supremacy, but there is also a history of African-Americans using it in very complex ways, " said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University. "There are cases of it being used as a term of endearment or political protest."

But Neal said organizations are also wary of holding officers of different racial backgrounds to different standards.

"A lot of places are really sensitive to being accused of using a double standard, " Neal said.

The result, as Samuels put it: "zero tolerance."

Times researcher John Martin and reporter Asjylyn Loder contributed to this report. Abhi Raghunathan can be reached at or (727) 893-8472.

[Last modified May 15, 2007, 23:53:35]

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