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Tuesday, May 28, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘Blazing Saddles’ Doesn’t Help Black Cop’s Case

CHICAGO (CN) - A black deputy sheriff who was fired for not taking his job seriously cannot sue the department for racial discrimination, the 7th Circuit ruled, rejecting claims that detectives harassed him by watching clips from "Blazing Saddles" in front of him and calling him Urkel.

Indiana's Warrick County Sheriff's Department promoted Kevin Harris several times after hiring him as a reserve deputy sheriff in 2003. But five months into Harris' probationary period as a full-time deputy sheriff, the department fired him.

The department requires all new deputies to complete a one-year probationary period during which they can be discharged at the sheriff's discretion for poor performance.

Harris met the criteria, according to his bosses, because he repeatedly showed a lack of respect for departmental policies. Some of the department's concerns stemmed from the fact Harris seemed to angle for less demanding duties. Soon after the probationary period started, Harris asked about sick-day procedures and then called in sick the next day.

Claiming that he liked the regular hours, Harris also requested long-term placement at a position widely reserved for officers approaching retirement. But even on this assignment, he frequently cited his personal obligations at a recently opened hair salon to quibble about the start time.

Harris also admitted that he had not read the department manual after his supervisors disciplined him for installing nonissue lights on his car and a nonstandard patch on his uniform. The department revoked Harris' vehicle take-home privileges after several infractions such as taking his patrol car to a local gym, though the vehicles cannot be driven on personal time.

Sheriff Marvin Heilman offered to let Harris return to working as a dispatcher if he wanted a less demanding duty, but Harris declined.

Despite these explanations, Harris claimed that race motivated the firing decision. In a lawsuit claiming violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Harris pointed out that three other white deputy sheriffs, including his successor, kept their jobs despite performance issues. Other officers also allegedly created a racially hostile environment by watching clips of "Blazing Saddles" in his presence and referring to him and the only other black deputy by the names of black characters in pop culture. These "racially tinged nicknames" included Cowboy Troy, after the black singer; Urkel, after the "Family Matters" character; and Tubbs, the name of a black officer on "Miami Vice."

Harris appealed after U.S. District Judge Richard Young dismissed the case, but the 7th Circuit was similarly unsympathetic.

Each of the white officers Harris had identified were not similarly situated to him because they had not violated standard operating procedures, disobeyed direct orders, or showed a lack of commitment - the reasons that Harris was terminated.

The 10-page ruling also rejected the racist environment claims. "The argument about 'Blazing Saddles' is hard to take seriously," Judge Diane Sykes wrote for a three-judge panel. "The 1974 Mel Brooks comedy was nominated for three Academy Awards and satirizes an array of racial, ethnic, and social stereotypes. ... The movie makes racism ridiculous, not acceptable, as Harris seems to contend."

Though the alleged heckling may indicate a hostile work environment, Harris failed to show that Heilman or anyone involved in the decision to fire him used or knew of the nicknames.

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