St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker did not engage in racial discrimination three years ago when he fired former police Chief Mack Vines, a federal judge has ruled.
Vines was fired in December 2001 after using the word "orangutan" to describe a hypothetical suspect who wildly resists arrest. Some police officers and members of the public perceived racial overtones in the terminology, and several days of turmoil ensued.
Vines sued Baker and the city, alleging that he was fired because he is white. Vines alleged that former police Chief Goliath Davis, who is black, engaged in inappropriate behavior and was not fired.
Allegations about Davis were critical to Vines' suit, because the law required him to show that a comparable employee of a different race was treated differently in "nearly identical" circumstances.
On Friday, U.S. District Judge Susan Bucklew said Vines failed to meet that test and threw out the suit.
Vines, who served for 74 days, could not be reached for comment Monday. He now works as a telemarketer for the St. Petersburg Times.
The orangutan comment arose during a roll call discussion about how much force arresting officers could use. Some officers said they thought Vines was referring to an actual African-American man recently accused of ramming a police officer during a drug investigation.
Vines said the term sprang to mind because he had seen an animal documentary showing an out-of-control orangutan. A city investigation showed that many officers at the roll call saw no racial implications, but the remark led to days of community meetings and a demonstration outside police headquarters.
Vines' suit alleged that Davis was not disciplined after bullying an officer during a roll call. The officer in that confrontation received a two-day suspension, which was upheld on appeal. Vines' suit also alleged that Davis wrote an inappropriate memo regarding officer tenure. The memo was intended to be confidential but became public.
Bucklew ruled that "Davis' alleged misconduct regarding the memorandum incident and roll call altercation is not similar, much less "nearly identical' to (Vines') orangutan comment."
Vines' three-year employment contract, which would have paid him $324,500, stated that he could be fired for any reason. His suit contended that he had a First Amendment right to speak his mind, but Bucklew ruled that the city had a greater right to make sure that employees properly carry out their duties.
Baker praised the decision and said, "I wish nothing but the best for Mr. Vines."