Two troopers at the Sandusky post of theOhio State Highway Patrol nearly lost their jobs after one snapped a photo of the other dressed up in a Ku Klux Klan-like outfit and sent thepicture to another trooper.
The third trooper, who worked at theNorwalk post, was also in hot water for his role in the incident.
The picture was taken with a cell phone camera at the Sandusky post on Jan. 20, 2008 -- the day before the national holiday tohonor slain civil rights leader Dr. MartinLuther King Jr.
Troopers Eric E. Wlodarsky and Craig T. Franklin, who were both on duty at the time, told an investigator the picture was taken as a joke and modeled after a skit by comedian Dave Chappelle.
The investigation began when the highway patrol's Administrative Investigative Unit received an anonymous letter postmarkedJan. 22 from Mansfield.
In the letter were two photographs ofuniformed Franklin "in a handmade outfit, which resembles that worn by Ku Klux Klan"members, according to an interoffice memo.
Also included in the envelope was a note that read "Sergeant Wlodarsky on duty at theSandusky Post on January 20, 2008. What a way to represent the Ohio State Highway Patrol!"
Franklin, a 12-year veteran, is pictured "with a white cone sitting on his head, white paper mask with eye holes in front of his face and white cloth covering the shoulders," according to a patrol document.
The well-known KKK outfit with a white hood and mask is an iconic image of racism.
The report added that one can see equipment including "a handgun holster, vehicle audio microphone, double magazine holder, mace holder and radio as issued by the Ohio State Highway Patrol."
'WITH A JOKING INTENT'
Wlodarsky told an investigator he forwarded the picture via text message to Sgt. Jason P. Demuth at the Norwalk post.
Demuth forwarded the picture to dispatcher Gaby Highlander, who works at the Toledo post, according to an investigation by Sgt. Jeffrey P. Bernard.
Wlodarsky told an investigator there was "no malicious intent" behind the picture and Franklin was a "joker" and posed for the picture "with a joking intent."
Franklin, Wlodarsky, another trooper and a dispatcher were discussing MLK Day at thepost on the day the picture was taken.
Wlodarsky told the investigator it was "his bad" to allow Franklin to dress up in the Klan garb.
"Sgt. Wlodarsky said there was no specific reference to the outfit looking like KKK, but supposes it would to the average person," Bernard wrote in his report. "He said after Franklin had thrown the outfit away, he told Franklin the gesture was not the best thing to do at work or in general."
The idea to dress up in the Klan outfit was hatched from a skit done by Chappelle, a black male comedian, Franklin told Bernard. Bernard wrote in his report he was able to find the skit on the Internet.
Franklin told investigators he was in the outfit for about a minute and "truly sorry." He admitted "it was the wrong thing to do" and was "embarrassed that he did it," Bernard wrote in the report.
Henry Guzman, director of Ohio Department of Public Safety, intended to fire both Wlodarsky and Franklin based on Bernard's investigation.
Thanks to their union contract, both were allowed to keep their jobs under a "last chance discipline agreement," following a pre-disciplinary hearing March 24.
The agreement provides an employee a last chance to correct his behavior. The employee can be fired if he violates patrol rules in the next two years. If an officer who enters into the agreement maintains a clean record for that period of time, record of the incident will be wiped from his record.
Both Wlodarsky and Franklin will be terminated if they violate rules of "conduct becoming an officer," a patrol spokesman said. He said conduct issues are "very broad."
Wlodarsky was demoted from sergeant to trooper and transferred to the Norwalk post. He can never be reassigned to the Sandusky post and must attend a diversity awareness class.
Franklin was placed on a five-day unpaid suspension. He must also attend diversity awareness training, according to patrol documents.
Demuth was given a one-day suspension for failing to report the incident to a supervisor and forwarding the photo to a subordinate.
"Obviously, we're extremely disappointed in the action of the three officers," said Lt. Shawn Davis, a spokesman for the patrol. "This kind of conduct cannot and will not be tolerated."
Thirteen troopers are assigned to the Sandusky post, which patrols highways in Erie and Ottawa counties. None of the 13 are black.
The patrol worked swiftly to investigate the incident, realizing the sensitivity of the issue, Davis said.
"It's not acceptable," he said. "That's why we took action."
Lt. Greg Greggila supervised Wlodarsky and Demuth at the Sandusky post.
"I've never had a problem with them, they are good officers," Greggila said. "They made a mistake and unfortunately they got what was coming to them as a result of that."
Greggila said neither man is a racist.
The state attorney general's office does not plan to look at the case as a potential hate crime, said spokesman Ted Hart.
"If a local police department or prosecutor asked us to look at it, that is something that we would take a look at," he said. "We would not step in on our own."
Gov. Ted Strickland knew of the picture, said Keith Dailey, a spokesman for the governor.
"The governor was extremely disappointed to learn of these troopers' actions," Dailey said, adding Strickland called the actions of the troopers "inappropriate" and "unacceptable."
None of the troopers had been in trouble prior to the Jan. 20 incident, according to documents released to the Register.
Wlodarsky was involved in a preventable patrol car crash when he ran into the rear of a semi truck that was stopped for a school bus. He was given a verbal reprimand for that incident.
The personnel records for Franklin and Demuth showed no entries prior to the KKK prank.
Davis could not recall any similar incidents at other patrol posts.
He said minorities should not lose faith in the patrol, despite the inflammatory nature of the picture.
"The integrity of the patrol is held to a high standard and is something that concerns us," Davis said. "These three (officers' actions) don't represent the 1,500 hard-working men of the highway patrol."