Controversy Erupts After Ex-KKK State Trooper Gets Reinstated

Aug. 31, 2006 — -- All across the Internet landscape, bloggers are screaming out about the controversy surrounding a Nebraska State Patrol trooper and his membership in the KKK and white supremacist group the White Knights.

"Freakin' stupid racism," one blogger writes.

"A racist cop? I am shocked. SHOCKED!" writes another.

"Since 1871, the US has designated the KKK as a 'violent, terrorist organization.' But so is the state of Nebraska, for the most part," concludes yet another.

The furor followed a decision by an arbitrator who ordered the Nebraska State Patrol to reinstate Trooper Robert Henderson, 50, of Omaha, an 18-year veteran of the force.

He was fired in March after admitting he had been a KKK member and had made postings on the White Knights' members-only Web site since June 2004 while off-duty.

According to the arbitrator's report, Henderson said he had joined the Ku Klux Klan for two reasons: His wife had "divorced him for a minority" and the KKK had given him an avenue to vent his frustration.

However, the arbitrator's ruling said the Nebraska State Patrol had failed to demonstrate why Henderson posed a threat to the public or the patrol.

While the arbitrator said he shared "the disgust" the patrol has in Henderson's decision to align himself with white supremacist organizations, he said that his decision was based only on law and that in this case, the State Patrol had failed to prove that Henderson's termination was justified under the terms of the collective-bargaining agreement.

Public employees have broad protections when it comes to free speech and their political beliefs.

Because the State Patrol said that Henderson did nothing wrong on the job, the arbitrator said, Henderson's firing violated his right to free speech.

That decision did not sit well with Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning.

He has filed a motion to vacate the arbitrator's decision.

"We don't want this person on the staff [of the Nebraska State Patrol]," he said. "We don't want the agency destroyed by a racist like Bob Henderson."

Col. Brian Tuma, the State Patrol commander, said Henderson was "never cited" on the job for racial profiling or other racist actions.

Henderson has since said it was mistake to join the groups, resigned his membership, and apologized to the commander.

Neither the attorney general nor the commander want Henderson reinstated.

Tuma says his office's appeal of the decision is based on "conduct unbecoming an officer. Being affiliated with a white supremacist organization is not consistent with the practices and policies of our agency."

Bruning was blunter.

"This is not Birmingham [Ala.] This is not 1960," he said. "We have no interest in having racists in our ranks."

How does the state hope to appeal the arbitrator's decision especially because it came through binding arbitration, which is usually difficult to fight?

Bruning concedes Henderson has First Amendment rights but that's about all.

"The First Amendment allows you to join disgusting groups. … But it does not allow him [Henderson] to be employed by Nebraska as a state trooper," he said.

"He has a right to these thoughts, but we don't have to employ him."

Bruning also says he's contacted a state senator to file paperwork to revoke Henderson's officer status, which could block him from working in other states.

Henderson's union attorney, Vincent Valentino, told Omaha's KETV that Henderson wasn't "running around in a sheet and hood. He was on his own time, on his own private computer. And he never brought any of the activity to the workplace."

Besides, Valentino said, "State employees have a right to think in private what they think."

Attempts to reach Henderson were unsuccessful, and the Nebraska troopers union would not comment.

The state of Nebraska has 60 days to reinstate Henderson unless Bruning's appeal is granted.

"Maybe a New York lawyer [Vincent Valentino] doesn't have a grasp on integrity," Bruning said. "But Colonel Tuma does and I do and the governor does."

Many of the bloggers who have gone online to offer their views make another point, should Henderson's job (and back pay) be reinstated.

As one put it, "Every defense attorney in Nebraska will be begging to see his (Henderson's) name attached to any case involving a minority because they can and will be able to get it thrown out."