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Deputy faces one-day suspension after telling racial joke

The sheriff says he hopes the punishment sends a message to all employees.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 7, 2001


BROOKSVILLE -- A Hernando County sheriff's deputy has been suspended for one day without pay and ordered to attend diversity training after telling a racially insensitive joke while on duty.

Karl Damm Sr., 47, will serve his suspension within the next two weeks, department spokeswoman Deanna Dammer said. It will cost him about $147.

While the incident isn't a firing offense, the joke Damm told was offensive, and he needed to be dealt with seriously, Sheriff Richard Nugent said Tuesday. Department policy states that officers shall not use "coarse, violent, profane or insolent language or gestures, and shall not express any prejudices concerning race, religion, politics, national origin, lifestyle or similar personal characteristics."

"We're trying to send a message to Karl Damm and to our other employees that this is not acceptable," said Nugent, adding that he struggled for a week to settle on an appropriate punishment. "You say, "Will a day off send a strong message to this employee?' And my belief is it will, because he has not been in trouble before."

Damm, a 15-year department veteran who works security at the county courthouse, did not want to talk to the St. Petersburg Times about the situation.

According to an Internal Affairs investigative report, made public Tuesday, Damm told Sheriff's Office staff lawyer Janet Andersen a joke last month that implied black people are not dependable workers and that they are known to be criminals.

Damm was in uniform and on duty outside Judge Jack Springstead's courtroom when he told Andersen the joke. Two other deputies also heard his remarks.

Andersen reported Damm to his supervisor later in the day. She said in a sworn statement to the Internal Affairs investigator that she thought Damm's comment, which she termed insolent and prejudiced, was inappropriate.

In his own statement to Internal Affairs, Damm acknowledged telling the joke but said he did not believe he had violated the department's standard operating procedures "because I wasn't offending the public in any way."

"This was Karl to Janet, because I've known her for so long," Damm told the investigator. "I've watched her grow up, you know, and it wasn't Karl violating any policies or talk, I never talk like that to any of the public. I'm always polite over there and I do my job."

He told the investigator he asked Andersen if she wanted to hear a "cute joke."

Nugent said he thought Damm was trying to minimize the situation by calling the joke "cute."

"Maybe to him it was, but to most people it isn't," Nugent said. "The message I'm sending to the public is, we're not going to tolerate it."

In his letter to Damm, Nugent said the department is committed to providing fair and unbiased law enforcement to all, and the joke encouraged negative stereotypes that are "destructive to all."

If Damm had been a supervisor and made such comments to his staff, or if he had a track record of racist statements, the penalty would have been stronger, Nugent said. In 1998, sheriff's Maj. G.Z. Smith was forced to resign after referring to a black deputy by a racial slur.

Nugent said there was nothing in the record to indicate that Damm had made racially offensive comments before.

In fact, Damm recently had received a department commendation for his work that helped the department's judicial division win accreditation. He got a strong performance evaluation in September, and was rated exemplary in three areas including interpersonal skills.

"He just did not engage his brain," Nugent said.

Terri Neal, president of the Spring Hill-based African-American Club, said she considered the one-day unpaid suspension satisfactory.

"I think you understand it when it hits your pocketbook," she said.

However, Neal added, a day of diversity training does not sound like enough. All sheriff's employees must go through eight hours of such training every four years, Nugent said, and Damm must attend an extra session.

"You can just sleep for a day and come out with nothing," Neal said. "You should have a diversity program all year long, and it should be ongoing."

Damm joined the Hernando County Sheriff's Office in May 1986 as a patrol officer. He transferred to the traffic division in 1988 and moved to the judicial division a year later. He worked for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office as an officer and sergeant from 1971 to 1986 and was a patrol officer for the Belleair Bluffs Police Department from 1966 to 1971.

This is the second time in less than a year that a local law enforcement officer has been disciplined for making racially offensive comments.

In August, Brooksville police Sgt. Rick Shew received a one-day suspension after he used a racial slur to describe a prostitute. He apologized and six months later was promoted to second-in-command of the agency.

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