Sergeant Can’t Resist Racial Humor, Loses Job

Rodney Hicok was a sergeant with the Iowa Department of Public Safety. Hicok’s troubles started in January 2009, when he received an email entitled “FW: The new fashion statement for mug shots!” The email featured 15 mug shots of suspects wearing various versions of tee-shirts in support of President Barack Obama. Twelve of the 15 individuals appeared to be African-American. The forwarded email read:

“Chicago Police Dept. mug shots. Anyone out there have any mug shots of people wearing any President Bush or John McCain shirts? Didn’t think so!! This was sent to me by a Chicago Police Officer, by the way…”

Hicok, using his state-issued laptop computer, sent the email on to about 13 additional recipients both inside and outside of state government. Hicok added his own sentiments:

“I’ve seen some ‘unique individuals’ aka SHITHEADS wearing these type shirts myself…He has quite a fan base. Nice to know that the lowlifes are getting involved in politics now. Sgt. Rodney Hicok, Iowa State Patrol, 2437 235th Street, Fort Dodge, IA 50501.”

Perhaps inevitably, the media received a copy of Hicok’s email, and the Department started an investigation. Because of the public controversy, the heads of the Department met with several legislators, specifically members of the Black Caucus and the Speaker of the House. Eventually, the Department suspended Hicok for 30 days, though the suspension was “on paper” and did not result in a loss of salary or benefits. The notice also contained a “last-chance” warning, advising Hicok that any further violation of department rules would result in termination of his employment.

Hicok did not appeal the suspension. He instead issued this public apology:

“I am deeply sorry for my actions. I would like to apologize to all members of the DPS for any embarrassment I have caused. I apologize to anyone this email may have offended, as well as my family, the citizens in my community and Iowa taxpayers. I have proudly served the DPS for 27 years and have done so with dignity and do not have a blemish on my record. I wear the uniform proudly and have dedicated most of my life to the Iowa State Patrol. I can guarantee with 100% certainty that nothing like this will ever happen again. I regret what happened and wish I could take it back.”

Three months later, during work time and using Department equipment, Hicok printed off a racially derogatory joke he received by email. He left the joke on the desk of his post’s secretary. The joke read as follows:

“In South Los Angeles, a four-plex was destroyed by a fire. A Nigerian family of six con artists lived on the first floor, and all six died in the fire. An Islamic group of seven welfare cheats, all illegally in the country from Kenya, lived on the second floor, and they too, all perished in the fire. Six LA, Hispanic, Gang Banger, ex-cons lived on the third floor and they too, died. A lone, white couple lived on the top floor. The couple survived the fire.

“Jesse Jackson, John Burris and Al Sharpton were furious. They flew into LA, met with the fire chief, on camera. They loudly demanded to know why the Blacks, Black Muslims and Hispanics all died in the fire and only the white couple lived…? The fire chief said, ‘They were at work.’”

The joke offended the secretary and she reported it to the post’s supervisor. While the supervisor was deliberating how to handle the situation, he received information from a sergeant regarding additional misconduct by Hicok. On April 21, 2009, Hicok gathered co-workers and subordinates around his state-issued laptop computer to watch a video comedy sketch by Hispanic comedian Carlos Mencia entitled “Wetback English.” The gist of the video was that illegal Hispanic immigrants were taking all of the jobs in the United States and that Caucasian people had to learn to speak broken, “wetback” English so that they too could find employment. Among the many troopers gathered to view the video was David Saldivar, who is Hispanic. Saldivar and Hicok were friends. Before showing the video, Hicok turned to Saldivar and said, “No offense intended.”

This time, the Department terminated Hicok. Hicok appealed, arguing that he was fired for “political” reasons because the Department’s Commissioner and Patrol Chief met with state legislators who were concerned after reading in the newspaper about Hicok’s conduct.

The Iowa Court of Appeals rejected Hicok’s appeal and upheld his discharge. The Court was particularly troubled by Hicok’s repeat conduct: “About ten weeks after his apology and six weeks after the end of his suspension, Hicok shared another internet-distributed joke – this one blatantly racist – with the post secretary. Offended by the joke, she informed the post supervisor. While the supervisor was deciding what action to take, he received a second report of Hicok using state-issued equipment to share a video comedy sketch entitled ‘Wetback English’ that another sergeant recognized as potentially offensive. Hicok asserts that he did not understand the racist implications of the joke he shared with the secretary or the video he shared with colleagues. The facts belie his assertion. We note he printed off the offensive joke and left a paper copy for the secretary, rather than risking that an email would be forwarded to disapproving parties. Hicok also turned to a Hispanic colleague and said ‘no offense’ before showing the ‘Wetback English’ video. Both actions signal that he grasped the offensive nature of the material.

“The question is whether the record supports Hicok’s argument that he was improperly fired for ‘political’ reasons. Commissioner Meyer and Chief Hoye testified the publicity regarding Hicok’s email messages and the resulting unhappiness of lawmakers played a role in their decision to suspend Hicok and give him the ‘last-chance’ warning. They point to language in the unbecoming-conduct rule prohibiting actions that bring disrepute to the department and that impair its efficient operation. Meyer and Hoye believed that by forwarding the Obama email to multiple people inside and outside the DPS, Hicok assumed the risk that he would bring disrepute to his employer. They also testified that public knowledge of Hicok’s misconduct threatened citizens’ trust in the department and hindered efforts to recruit minority officers.

“We reject the notion that the level of media coverage an officer’s conduct attracts should be the measure of whether the conduct brings the department into disrepute. To do so would be to bestow upon the media a role in determining what is good cause for imposing discipline on a public employee. But we also reject Hicok’s argument that his discharge was not based on good cause because the DPS commanders admitted they considered negative feedback from lawmakers when determining his initial sanction. The DPS commissioner did not fire Hicok after hearing the legislators’ concerns. They suspended him and warned him that future rule violations would result in termination. Hicok did not appeal the first punishment. Hicok’s subsequent rule violations resulted in his firing. Law enforcement officials are entitled to consider the impact of an officer’s conduct that others view as offensive on the efficient operation of the department. Hicok’s job performance detracted from the department’s reasonable goal of having officers treat all citizens impartially and fairly. His violation of the rules regarding unbecoming conduct and the communications policy justified his firing when he had been issued the last-chance warning.”

Hicok v. Iowa Employment Appeal Bd., 2011 WL 5391652 (Iowa App. 2011).