When Darien Police Chief Donnie Howard found out his 16-year-old daughter, who is white, had a black boyfriend, he said he became “physically ill.”
Howard rarely censored himself when discussing race, according to depositions stemming from a federal discrimination lawsuit filed by an African-American former officer.
Korone Robinson, now a narcotics investigator with the McIntosh County Sheriff’s Department, alleges he was arbitrarily disciplined, demoted and eventually fired after Darien police administrators learned he was dating a white colleague.
The depositions were reviewed by Channel 2 Action News and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution as part of a joint investigation.
“You work in these places, you keep your head down, do your job don’t make waves,” Robinson said. “This is their world.”
That world was a place where a Nazi flag once hung on a wall inside police headquarters, which Howard acknowledged under oath. He also admitted to sharing a disturbing tale from childhood with some of his officers.
“That story was about you putting watermelon beside the road and that you would hide and wait for the blacks to come get it and you’d shoot them with BB guns. Does that sound familiar?” asked Robinson’s attorney, Katie Mitchell.
The chief’s response? “I was a juvenile kid.”
It’s not the first time members of law enforcement have faced racist allegations in McIntosh County, located halfway between Savannah and Jacksonville.
Facebook messages that surfaced in 2016 showed two former McIntosh deputies referring to African-Americans as “n——s” and discussing targeting black motorists for infractions. A former McIntosh County Sheriff’s Department captain filed a federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint in 2014 alleging that Sheriff Stephen Jessup often used the N-word toward his political opponent or members of the community.
“In fact, this was accepted behavior by several individuals” in the department, former captain Robert J. Kicklighter’s complaint alleged.
Jessup denied the allegations, telling The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2016 he “will not tolerate racism or bigotry of any fashion.”
He remains sheriff, re-elected three years ago with 62.5 percent of the vote. Howard — appointed, not elected — is still the police chief of Darien, McIntosh’s county seat. Brunswick attorney Rick Strickland, who represents the defendants in Robinson’s suit, declined to comment.
“Suddenly everything changed”
Robinson joined the Darien police force part-time in 2012 on the recommendation of Ryan Alexander, his onetime direct supervisor and former best friend. Now Alexander is a co-defendant in Robinson’s suit.
Within two years Robinson was the department’s narcotics investigator — “the job I always wanted,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He often worked alongside a new hire, Stacy Miller. They began seeing each other outside the office, and a romance bloomed.
Robinson had kept previous interracial relationships a secret, believing many whites in this small coastal community would not approve. This time he informed Alexander about the relationship after he and Miller attended a Dierks Bentley concert with Alexander and his wife in December 2015.
“I just wanted to let them know, because we worked so closely together,” Robinson said.
Alexander testified that he knew about their relationship months before then, and the timeline is important, as Robinson alleges the harassment began almost immediately afterward. During his deposition, Alexander recalled telling Robinson that dating Miller was “probably a bad idea.”
“Suddenly, everything changed,” Robinson said.
Statements from two other officers in the department support Robinson’s claim. Darien Police Capt. Archie Davis testified that he noticed a difference in how Chief Howard talked about Robinson and his work ethic beginning in January 2016.
Over the next eight months, up until Robinson’s dismissal, “they put him through hell,” said Katie Mitchell, Robinson’s lawyer.
Alexander ordered Robinson and Miller not to ride in their department-issued police vehicle together, allegedly saying “it didn’t look good,” Mitchell said.
Alexander said the decision was more about policing.
“Because of their relationship … if something were to happen to where Stacy was in danger, I knew Korone would have would have done more to protect Stacy instead of handling the scene,” he said in his deposition.
The edict didn’t cover their off-duty time, yet Robinson said he was suspended for three days after driving with Miller in his police-issued vehicle to a wedding in Atlanta. He said other officers were allowed to use their vehicles for personal use, one of the few perks in a low-paying job. Howard testified that such trips had to be approved first.
Soon after Robinson’s suspension, Miller was transferred to the night shift. She subsequently lodged a grievance with the EEOC and has filed her own lawsuit against her former bosses. Miller, now a school resource officer for McIntosh County, declined comment.
Robinson said he was frozen out of joint drug investigations with other agencies after the relationship became public. In May 2016, he was suspended for two weeks without pay for allegedly disobeying that order after he was spotted in the staging area before a major drug sweep coordinated by the McIntosh sheriff’s office. Robinson said he was there only to check on Miller, who was involved in the investigation, and other officers on the scene backed his account.
“It was like, ‘ding, ding, ding, you big idiot, it’s because you’re black and she’s white,’” Robinson said in an interview with the AJC.
Eventually he was demoted to patrol duty, even though Alexander, in his deposition, praised Robinson’s “investigative intuition.”
“To put it lightly, he wasn’t a strong report writer, and I was probably very particular on how the reports were to be written,” Alexander testified. “So we had an issue. We butted heads several times.”
That June, Robinson lost his side job with a local restaurant where Howard and Alexander’s wives work as waitresses. Later that month, Robinson, while on patrol duty, received a domestic disturbance call from the restaurant. Robinson instructed the complainant to come outside, saying, on his police radio, that he had been banned from the premises. In a recent ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said Robinson hurt his own case by doing so.
“This untrue statement reflected poorly on the police department because others who heard it would wonder why a police officer was banned from a popular restaurant in Darien,” Wood wrote. “Thus, a supervising officer could decide that such an action that reflects poorly on the department warrants termination, and that is what Howard did in this case.”
Robinson was given 90 days to find another job, though he said a lieutenant in the office assured him the situation would work itself out. It didn’t, and he was fired in August 2016.
“He was fired for things that other officers usually weren’t even disciplined for,” said Mitchell, his attorney. The city of Darien, responding to an EEOC complaint that Robinson filed after his dismissal, said Robinson was let go for ignoring the police chief at work, failing to notify dispatchers when starting and completing his shifts, using his city vehicle for personal use and failing to file incident reports.
Each of these supposed infractions occurred in 2016, after he began dating Miller, Mitchell noted. Robinson and Miller are no longer a couple.
Though granting the defendants immunity on some of the allegations against them, Judge Godbey Wood ruled earlier this month that the suit may proceed.
“While numerous factual disputes exist in this case, taking Plaintiff’s version of events, the Court finds that a reasonable jury could conclude that Howard, Alexander, and (patrol unit supervisor Joseph) Creswell discriminated against him in violation of the Equal Protection Clause,” she wrote.
Robinson, now 38, said he is intent on clearing his good name.
“When I try to tell people this story they look at me like I’m lying. It’s like I’m the big angry black guy,” he told the AJC. “It takes everything in me not to yell and scream, but I can’t do that. Not down here.”
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