HR Management & Compliance

Deputy Terminated During Training Period Points to Racial Bias

What Happened

The Warrick County, Indiana, sheriff hired “Connor” as a reserve deputy sheriff in November 2003. Connor received promotions to part-time—and, later, full-time—dispatcher before becoming a full-time deputy sheriff in August 2007.

All new deputies are required to complete a 1-year probationary period during which field training officers (FTOs) teach them basic law-enforcement techniques.

Shortly after Connor’s training began, the sheriff and a lieutenant became concerned about his lack of respect for departmental policies. For example, he took a sick day only 1 day after asking his FTO about the department’s sick-day procedures, and he asked a sergeant whether the department’s required minimum of 40 traffic contacts per month should be taken seriously. 

In addition, he did not read the department’s standard operating procedures until the lieutenant confronted him about committing two violations: installing nonissue lights on his assigned patrol car and affixing a nonstandard patch on his uniform jacket.

Connor requested a long-term placement at the Warrick County Judicial Center, widely seen as a preretirement position, because he preferred the regular hours. Yet, even when he was assigned to the Judicial Center, he quibbled about his start time, often saying he needed to attend to business at a hair salon that he had recently opened.

In an October 2007 meeting with his command staff and Connor, the sheriff expressed his disappointment with Connor’s lack of motivation, reiterated the importance of following orders and standard operating procedures, and offered to return Connor to his less-demanding dispatcher job.

Connor declined the offer, but his alleged violation of the department’s rules continued. 

Then, on January 4, 2008, about 5 months into his probationary period, Connor’s employment was terminated.

Although the sheriff told Connor that more training might improve his performance-based deficiencies, he said the main problems were Connor’s habit of disregarding orders, his casual approach to standard operating procedures, and his lack of motivation.

Connor sued the Sheriff’s Department, alleging that he was fired because he is black, in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 42 USC §1981.

He noted that several white deputies were retained despite performance problems during their probationary period. One was an unsafe driver, was not aggressive enough, and did not follow the best police practices when dealing with suspects (e.g., he stood too closely to a dangerous suspect without cover). Another white deputy had problems with prisoner control and traffic stops. A third, who was hired to replace Connor, had trouble with decision-making skills and completing reports in a timely fashion and had several driving accidents. The sheriff extended the white deputies’ training periods instead of terminating their employment.

Connor also claimed he was racially harassed at work. He cited racially tinged nicknames given to him and the only other black deputy in the department, as well as one occasion when detectives watched excerpts from the movie Blazing Saddles.

The district court ruled in favor of the department, and Connor appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, which covers Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.

What the Court Said

The appeals court affirmed the decision, saying there was no evidence to indicate that Connor was terminated due to his race. “No evidence suggests that the sheriff or other decision makers participated in any of the alleged racially charged behavior …watching Blazing Saddles in the workplace and giving… [him] racially tinged nicknames.”

The court described Blazing Saddles as a movie that “satirizes an array of racial, ethnic, and social stereotypes … The movie makes racism ridiculous, not acceptable, as … [Connor] seems to contend.”

In addition, the court noted that the white deputies are not similarly situated to Connor, because “none of them violated standard operating procedures, disobeyed direct orders, or showed a lack of commitment to the job during their probationary periods.”

Harris v. Warrick County Sheriff’s Department (No. 10-3706) (U.S. Court of Appeals, 7th Cir., 1/13/12)

In Brief

Managers and supervisors should receive training on race discrimination and ways to avoid it, as well as training on disciplining and terminating employees. Among other things, training should include a discussion of the need to impose discipline consistently when employees engage in comparable misconduct, as well as the importance of documenting performance problems and the reason(s) behind decisions to terminate an employee’s employment.

In this case, the court noted that the lieutenant had created a written statement documenting the reasons for Connor’s termination, and that his documentation was consistent with the sheriff’s explanation.

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