Fla. captain fired for alleged racial slur on fellow firefighter


By S. Brady Calhoun
The News Herald

PANAMA CITY, Fla. — Bay County officials say they terminated a white fire captain for using a racial slur against a black captain, but an advocate for the fired man said it is a case of reverse discrimination.

According to documents released by the county at the request of The News Herald, Capt. Bobby Harrell is accused of calling Capt. Keith Capehart "Buckwheat," telling a fire chief that he needed to control his "boy," cursing at supervisors and saying he would become violent if a supervisor came to see him.

However, representatives of the captain said he is being discriminated against because he was trying to form a union here.

Both Harrell and Capeheart were assigned to the Thomas Drive fire station, though they worked different shifts.

Harrell made the statements to Capehart on Aug. 12 during a disagreement over how to handle a firefighter who had cut his hand while using a table saw. Capehart wanted to see the firefighter in person, but Harrell, who was the firefighter's direct supervisor, intercepted the message, according to the documents. Harrell told Capehart the firefighter's injury was none of his business.

Capehart wrote that he replied that it was his business and that he wanted to make sure the firefighter could use his left hand. Capehart also asked Harrell whom he thought he was talking to because he was not one of Harrell's subordinates, Capehart wrote. Harrell then repeated the question back to Capehart, but called him "Buckwheat," the documents stated.

"I told Capt. Harrell that is going to cost him and hung up," Capehart wrote in a letter dated Aug. 14.

Capehart was the target of racial discrimination by at least five firefighters when he was a lieutenant at the Southport fire station. Three of the firefighters in that case were fired, and two volunteer firefighters were told they no longer could volunteer after the allegations came to light in 2006.

In his termination letter to Harrell, Mark Bowen, the chief of emergency services, wrote that "the use of the term 'Buckwheat' to refer to any African-American employee is completely unacceptable behavior."

Harrell protested his firing and had a hearing before County Manager Ed Smith, who upheld the termination decision. Harrell said his lawyer had advised him not to comment on the issue and forwarded questions to Shayne Stewart, the Eighth District vice president for the Florida Professional Firefighters Association.

Stewart said the incident is, indeed, a case of discrimination, but the discrimination is against Harrell, not Capehart.

"We feel like he was being retaliated and discriminated against for his involvement in organizing Bay County firefighters," Stewart said. "We are disappointed to say the least."

Stewart added that the union and Harrell's attorneys will be using every legal avenue to get Harrell his job back. Stewart declined to talk about the specifics of the accusations against Harrell but did say the incident had been blown out of proportion. Any discipline brought in the case should have been "equal across the board," Stewart added.

"We felt that remarks made ... toward Capt. Harrell were not taken into effect," Stewart said.

County officials said Harrell's involvement with the union played no part in the decision to terminate him.

"The decision to uphold the termination recommendation was based solely on the facts and circumstances of this incident as well as case precedent that the term 'Buckwheat' is a racial slur — nothing else. For Okaloosa County-based union organizers to suggest otherwise is untrue and irresponsible," Smith wrote in an e-mail to The News Herald. "The fact of the matter is, Bay County does not and will not tolerate discrimination, racial or otherwise."

Currently, there are no firefighter unions in Bay County. A firefighter union in Panama City was disbanded several years ago.

Copyright 2009 The News Herald

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