TAMPA — A Black Tampa police officer who was fired after for using the n-word on two separate occasions will be back on the job Tuesday.
The city’s Civil Service Board decided Monday that police Chief Brian Dugan had just cause to fire Delvin White in March for using the racial slur on two separate occasions in November 2020, but that firing the beloved school resource officer at Middleton High School was too harsh a punishment.
The board voted 3 to 0 to reinstate White, effective immediately and with no back pay. Two members, Terin Cremer and Cory Person, were absent.
“I do not want to see the city lose an employee like that who obviously does his job above and beyond — a difficult job in, let’s face it, very difficult circumstances,” said board member Charlotte Hursey. “It’s like cutting off your nose to spite your face.”
Dugan fired White after body camera video surfaced in which he used the racial slur multiple times on two separate occasions in November 2020. In one, he was having a private phone conversation with his wife. In the second, he was arresting a Black student at Middleton who was accused of refusing to leave campus and resisting arrest.
Dugan and the city argued that White clearly violated a city policy that forbids the use of racial slurs. The city’s personnel manual states, in part, that violating the policy “shall be grounds for immediate dismissal in the absence of extenuating circumstances.”
Dugan said he had to be consistent under the city’s policy forbidding discriminatory language, and that he was most troubled that an officer used the word while arresting a student. White’s supporters, who included many Middleton students and staff, agreed he should have been sanctioned for the behavior caught on his body camera. But they saw it as unfair and counterproductive to end the career of an effective, beloved Black officer at a school where nearly half the students are Black.
“This isn’t about racism, this is about professionalism,” Dugan testified during Monday’s hearing. “Officer White isn’t playing golf with his frat brothers, he’s not playing poker, he’s wearing the uniform of a Tampa Police Department officer and speaking to a student that way.”
The city cited other recent cases where officers violated the policy and resigned before they could be terminated.
White’s attorney, Bob McCabe, called a former Middleton teacher, a Middleton parent and a former supervisor of White’s who said White went out of his way to mentor children at the school and launched programs to make the campus cleaner and safer.
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“He understood where they came from and tried his best to help them understand that they don’t need to be a product of their environment,” said former Middleton teacher Kristina Ravenel, who now works at another school.
McCabe said the case was replete with extenuating circumstances, such as White’s lack of serious disciplinary history, his stellar job performance and the proof of his impact at the school. McCabe cited other cases going back several years where employees got 15-day suspensions.
“This policy says in its own language that it will be uniformly applied in all circumstances,” McCabe told the board.
White acknowledged he made a mistake and used “a poor choice of words.” With the student, he said, he said the word out of frustration and also as a way to connect with him, but not as a slur.
Assistant City Attorney Toyin Aina-Hargett urged the board not to consider other cases that aren’t substantially similar. She asked the board to uphold the termination and deny White’s request.
“We did the right thing and we ask of you to help us to continue to do the right thing,” said Aina-Hargett, who is Black. “When you say no to this, you ensure that someone who’s a little bit lighter than me is not going to be able to do the same thing.”
Board member Leslie Stein said White made a big mistake and deserved to be punished.
“What he did was wrong, and maybe if the penalty is sufficient he will never do it again,” Stein said.
Board member Alan Clendenin said he struggled with giving White his job back but ultimately agreed to vote with the majority.
“I’d be concerned if he went back to the same school, because what kind of signal would we be sending to the students?” Clendenin said.
A smiling White said after the hearing that he hopes to return to Middleton, or at least to remain a school resource officer.
“I was made to be an SRO,” he said.
Dugan said he stood by his decision but will respect the board’s vote. He said he’ll meet with his executive staff to determine where to place White.
“Clearly he has a passion for the students and they have a passion for him, and that will be taken into account,” Dugan said.