KKK prank ignites outrage

SANDUSKY National news outlets and talk radio programs latched onto the story of the highway patrol
Sandusky Register Staff
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

National news outlets and talk radio programs latched onto the story of the highway patrol troopers who got into trouble after one snapped a photo of another dressed up in a Ku Klux Klan-like outfit.

CNN and FOX News, as well as the Cleveland and Toledo TV stations, requested permission to use the Register's story. The story was also picked up by newspapers statewide.

Richard Koonce, who considers himself a local activist, said he heard the incident discussed Monday morning on the Tom Joyner show. Joyner is a nationally syndicated radio host whose show is targeted toward blacks.

The picture was snapped with a cell phone camera at the Sandusky post Jan. 20 -- the day before the national holiday honoring slain civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King.

Troopers Eric E. Wlodarsky and Craig T. Franklin, who were both on duty at the time, told an investigator the picture was taken as joke and modeled after a skit by comedian Dave Chappelle.

Warning: This link to the skit by Dave Chappelle contains derogatory and offensive language.

Wlodarsky, who snapped the photo, and Franklin, who dressed up in the racist garb, were both recommended for termination but were allowed to retain their jobs because of a collective bargaining agreement. Wlodarsky, who was demoted from sergeant to trooper, sent the photo to a third trooper, Sgt. Jason P. Demuth, who was given a one-daysuspension. Franklin was suspended for five days. Franklin and Wlodarsky must attend diversity awareness training.

Koonce, who was born and raised in Sandusky, wasdisgusted by the incident.

"When I read it, of course, I was really disappointed that we have officers who work at the Sandusky post who would engage in that behavior," said Koonce, who is an assistant professor of communications at Walsh University in North Canton.

The Sandusky chapter of the NAACP was silent about the incident Monday. Ida Alexander, chapter president, declined to comment but said she planned to issue astatement today.

Koonce said he believes there is an undercurrent of racism locally.

"I understand the level of racism that persists in Sandusky, in Erie County," Koonce said. "That's one of the reasons I ran for school board."

The story posted on the Register Web site generated more than 500 reader comments in 48 hours.

The comments ranged from individuals who were incensed by the incident to those who thought it was nothing more than a joke.

"There is a time and a place for everything ... and this was neither," one reader wrote. "Shame on these officers for making the entire police force look like a bunch of racist idiots."

"If everyone was honest with themselves, this is no big deal," another reader argued. "The PC crowd want it to be. We all joke with our coworkers and friends. Be real PEOPLE. It was a joke."

Sandusky City Commissioners voted unanimously to write a letter to the Ohio State Highway Patrol condemning the acts of the officers.

"There's no place for that in this city," commission vice president Craig Stahl said. "It is a disgusting act."

Commission president Dennis Murray agreed that the act was reprehensible. A citizen asked commissioners to demand the troopers be fired, but Murray said such a request is outside the city's governing authority.

"When I heard about it, it cut me deep," commissioner Brett Fuqua said. "If that was a Sandusky (police officer), I would demand that he be fired immediately."

A local professor who teaches an ethnic studies class said the photo highlights a serious problem in society.

"What it tells us is there is still a rather sad lack of sensitivity to the feelings of people who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups," said Benjamin N. Muego, a political science professor at BGSU Firelands. "People think there is something funny about it or lighthearted. But there is nothing funny to what those things signify."

Acting swiftly to discipline the troopers was a smart move by the highway patrol, Muego said.

"That's probably a very good thing, and hopefully that is the end of that," he said.

The incident likely left Ohio with a "black eye," Muego said. Because of the Internet and 24-hour news cycles, the story is likely to hang around longer than if it had just been reported locally.

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Register staff writer Jennifer Grathwol contributed to this story.