Delvin White was a black man. He was also a cop, a school resource officer as cops in schools are euphemistically called. So is he black or blue, because that would seem to dictate what words he is permitted to use without losing his job.
Officer Delvin White was fired for “violations of policy that prohibit discriminatory conduct,” said a news release. He was an eight-year veteran of the department.
A disposition letter released by police about White’s actions said he used the racial slur while on the phone and directly to a person while he was arresting them Nov. 30.
The racial slur is exactly what you would expect it to be, the “n-word” which you just heard in your head even though it wasn’t written on the page. But as my pal Elie reliably informs me, no white person can utter the word, with bad intent or otherwise, without being a racist. But that doesn’t apply to black guys.
The officer is Black, Tampa police spokesman Eddy Durkin confirmed to the Times. Nearly half the students attending Middleton are Black compared to one in five students districtwide, according to district demographic data.
When confronted about his actions, White told his superior that he did not mean for the word to be derogatory. Instead, he said that he was using the word as it is “commonly used in today’s society as a means of shared culture and experiences among the African American community,” the letter said.
White has a point. Under the new rules of acceptable language usage, his skin color entitles him to say the word that would otherwise be forbidden. And indeed, in his job in a school with a significant black student population, engaging students in vernacular that demonstrates a “shared culture and experience” would likely enable the students and former-officer White to bond and communicate better. Ordinarily, that would be a good thing, the sort of thing one would want from a school cop.
And it wasn’t as if anyone complained about Delvin White’s language.
White’s actions during the November phone call came to light after a random audit of body-worn camera footage, police said. He admitted to using the racial slur during the arrest that happened later that month, police said.
White was recorded saying the word to reference a “group of persons” while on the phone and driving home from an off-duty assignment Nov. 13, according to the letter. He later used it again while talking on the phone with his wife.
But for the random audit of his body cam, no one would have known his conversation with his wife where he used the unspeakable word. Twice. With his wife. But as it turned out, that wasn’t the only time White uttered the word.
On Nov. 30, camera footage showed White used the word twice while arresting a suspect for trespassing.
There is no discussion of the nature of its usage, whether it was spoken as a slur or as a cultural bonding opportunity. There is no indication of a complaint being made against White for having said it, nor for engaging in any other speech or conduct to suggest he has any racial animus toward black people. But once it was discovered by random audit of his body cam, what was the Tampa Police Department to do?
“Derogatory statements made by police officers jeopardize the trust that our department works to establish with our community,” said Chief Brian Dugan in a statement. “Tampa Police officers are held to a higher standard and incidents like this negatively impact the entire law enforcement profession.”
Chief Dugan isn’t wrong, even if his statement is a bit too simplistic and platitudinous. Cops calling people the “n-word” under most circumstances would reflect the deeply-rooted culture of racism embedded in cop culture and responsible for enormous wrongful damage to black people by police. But that’s generic, if true, and Delvin White isn’t a stereotype, but an individual. Doesn’t that count for anything?
And Chief Dugan isn’t wrong to hold police to a “higher standard,” whatever that means, but what is that standard when it comes to a black cop speaking like black man who happens to be a cop? It may well be that the right policy for police officers, regardless of race, is that they do not utter the “n-word” on the job no matter what. Was that the policy? Was White told not to do so, even if he felt he could better work with black students by being more relatable to them, by reflecting their “shared culture and experiences”?
If the Tampa Police Department had a policy forbidding any police officer from saying the word under any circumstances while on the clock, then violation of the policy would be understandable. Not because of Delvin White’s race, but because it was an order. You don’t have to like orders, but following them is part of a paramilitary gig.
Any time bright line rules are put into place, they are going to work “injustices.” It might very well feel wrong to fire a black cop for using a word that black people have determined is allowable only by black people. If Delvin White has to go through life as a black man, should he not be able to speak like one? More seriously, it’s likely very true that it enabled him to do his job better by being able to speak to students using the vernacular of their culture and experience.
But rules are rules, and when exceptions are made, they become too squishy to understand, communicate and apply. As for a police rule as to who is permitted to say the “n-word,” no one might well be the best answer. Clear, simple and easy to apply, even if circumstances suggest that a one-size-fits-all rule isn’t the best rule in an individual case.
Of course, White’s firing was also based on the body cam recording of his conversation with his wife. What possible business the police department had with the content of spousal communications is an entirely different matter. Then again, if it were a white cop speaking to his wife, and it somehow found its way into the public domain, the privacy aspect would likely mean nothing to those demanding his termination.