TAMPA — Tampa’s police union says it will fight for the job of a Black school resource officer who was fired Tuesday for using a racial slur.
The Tampa Police Benevolent Association agrees that Officer Delvin White, a school resource officer at Middleton High School, should be punished for using the n-word on two occasions, said spokesman Danny Alvarez. But the union calls firing him too harsh a penalty.
“We, including Officer White, believe he should have been punished because we all agree no officer should speak that way, but the punishment does not fit the allegations,” Alvarez said in an interview Wednesday. “Officer White has an incredible record of contributing not only to his community but to the TPD, and to lose him over this would be a travesty.”
The union’s action comes as police Chief Brian Dugan received emails supporting White, some describing him as beloved and respected by students and staff at the school. Nearly half of the students attending the east Tampa school are Black, compared to one in five districtwide.
Dugan said he made what he called a very difficult decision to fire White, based on the fact that he used the word on not one but two separate occasions, as well as the context of each time White used the word. Both instances were captured on the officer’s body camera.
In one of the cases, Dugan said, White called a Black student at Middleton the n-word as he was arresting him.
“To me, what’s more troubling is that as a school resource officer, he would talk to a student that way,” Dugan said. “I look at as a school resource officer as equivalent to a teacher. Would you want a teacher to talk to your son in that manner?”
According to a summary letter to Dugan from members of his command staff, the first incident happened Nov. 13, while White was driving home from an off-duty assignment. He used the word while apparently speaking to himself about an unidentified group of people, the letter says.
Then, while talking with his wife on the phone during the same car ride, he used the word again, this time “referring, in a general context, about the students he protects at the school,” the letter says.
Dugan said White used the phrase “ghetto n-words,” which the chief found to be a troubling blanket statement about the people White serves.
When confronted with the recording and relieved of duty, White volunteered to a supervisor that he used the word again while he was arresting a juvenile Nov. 30, and that the incident was also captured by his body camera. The recording showed White used the word at least twice during the arrest.
White told his superior he did not mean for the word to be derogatory. Instead, he said 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.
A complaint review board, composed of five sworn officers ranging in rank from master patrol officer to captain, unanimously decided that White violated a department policy on “professional responsibility and responsibility of enforcement.”
Only two of the five board members decided, however, that White violated a policy forbidding “discriminatory conduct.” Such conduct is described in the policy as using “slurs, derogatory comments or any other physical or verbal conduct directed at or based upon another person’s race,” among several other characteristics.
Citing Merriam-Webster’s definitions of “slur” and “derogatory,” a review board letter to Dugan summarizing the findings said that, in the context of White’s uses of the word, “no one was insulted, no damage was done to anyone’s reputation and the victim did not feel offended or disrespected.”
“An example of this would be a sibling calling his/her sister ‘sissy.’ It is not considered a slur or derogatory,” the letter says. “However, calling a known gay person a ‘sissy’ is both a slur and derogatory.”
White is an eight-year veteran of the department who has been a school resource officer at Middleton since 2018. Records show he has four previous policy violations in his personnel file, four of them related to the operation of a department vehicle and one involving search and transport of a prisoner.
After White was relieved of duty, Dugan received emails from people in the Middleton community, including teachers, in support of the officer and asking for him to be allowed to return. They praised what they called his engaged approach to the job, his ability to de-escalate situations and his passion for helping troubled youngsters.
“With many of our students, when the police arrive things get worse,” Madonna Higgs wrote. “However, Officer White is a symbol of peace and calm. When he arrives, the students’ demeanor changes because they know they will be treated with respect.”
Kristina Ravenel, a math teacher and softball coach, told Dugan in an email that White helped students get equipment they couldn’t afford, and he gives students guidance about what it takes to make it in college while participating in athletics.
“In my six years at Middleton, he is the only officer that I have known who supports all of our students regardless of the situation,” Ravenel wrote.
In a statement released Tuesday after the department announced White’s firing, the union called White “a beloved and trusted member of the East Tampa community that he was raised in and that he protected every day.”
“The PBA will file a formal grievance on Officer White’s behalf with the hope and expectation of getting this valued Officer back to work,” said the statement, posted on Facebook along with a photo of White in uniform.
Asked what punishment the police union would find appropriate, spokesman Alvarez replied, “anything short of termination.”
As part of the grievance process, employees can appeal to the city’s director of human resources and then file for a hearing before an independent arbitrator.
Dugan acknowledged that the show of support White received from Middleton made his decision even harder but, he said, “all that kind of gets erased when you behave like this.”