Last June 18, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s school resource deputies were conducting a “Personal Empowerment Camp” at Buddy Taylor Middle School. During the camp, Cpl. William Lowe was alleged to have used the terms “white power” in front of students, and to have told them that, according to a supervisor’s memo, “they better behave or they would be removed because they don’t pay his bills and he will not lose his job because of them.”
At least two deputies told superiors that they themselves heard Lowe use the phrase “white power,” and that he had spoken it loud enough for the whole class of children to hear. Lowe had allegedly said it while demonstrating a hammer fist. A third deputy who was also in the room said he’d not heard the phrase spoken. A fourth said he was in the bathroom and so could not have heard what was said.
A sheriff’s deputy and the director of the Police Athletic League, which was organizing the camp, heard all four talk of the incident afterward, informed the sergeant in charge of school resource deputies, who then informed a commander. The next day, an internal investigation began.
Lowe was removed from the program and reassigned to patrol duties. He said he was mis-heard, that all he’d referred to was something along the lines of “I have the power,” a line from a “He Man” cartoon from the 1980s about “the most powerful man in the universe.” (“I’ve got the power” is a 1990 pop song by a German group.)
Today, the sheriff’s office released the completed internal affairs investigation (though it had been completed on Sept. 9), finding the allegation against Lowe’s use of the words “white power” unsubstantiated, in that some deputies said they heard it, others said they didn’t. The investigation did substantiate his comment regarding his job, but also found that the comment had not been made aggressively or maliciously.
Lowe is known to come across a bit more gruff or coarse than he is, according to some of those who know him. One former deputy who knew him well described him as a practical joker with a dark sense of humor that others could appreciate, since it helped to cope with the job, and that he could at times push the envelope and say things that could easily be taken out of context.
Cmdr. Phil Reynolds, who heads the sheriff’s youth services division, which includes all school resource deputies, told an internal investigator that he’d had to bring “a couple” of situations to Sgt. Chris Ragazzo about Lowe “regarding tone, language and actions.” But Lowe’s personnel file does not reflect serious issues. He earned a promotion to corporal, he’s never been investigated before, and has no “current” corrective measures, according to the internal investigation conducted by Det. Randall Doyle. He’s been with the sheriff’s office since September 2006.
Lowe’s issue at Buddy Taylor, at least regarding the inappropriate statement about his job, resulted in a reprimand. He was reinstated to his job as a school resource deputy, though he’s not been on the job recently due to a motorcycle accident off duty. He is recovering, and expected to return to his SRD duties.
The internal investigation did not include any of the largely pre-teen children who were in attendance at the camp, focusing on the deputies in the room and various supervisors.
The deputies involved included Sam Cooper, Robin Towns, Ralph Lilavois and Nicholas Champion.
Cooper said he “heard something” but said he tuned it out. Deputy Robin Towns–who would later say he wasn;t absolutely certain he’d heard what he’d heard, which is why he asked for confirmation–asked him: “Did he just say white power?” He had heard it, Cooper said, but didn’t think anything of it–he didn’t know who it came from. But Towns took it as “validation to what he had just heard,” according to the investigation. And Lilavois had walked over to ask them if they’d heard the comment. Lilavois had been some 25 feet away from them. The three “laughed off” the comment, according to Towns, acknowledging it was “kinda raw.”
Lowe, Cooper told investigators, was a “fun guy” who liked to joke around, but was not a racist–had never said anything racist in the years he’d known him. Towns, who has sought out Lowe for guidance beyond the job, described Lowe the same way, but said that while the comment “really didn’t bother me, however it was a shock that it would come out in their environment,” meaning the children’s environment.
A statement about “white power” would be shocking in any environment, of course, and would be inappropriate–and bigoted–whatever the venue: the offhanded casualness with which deputies reacted to what they thought they heard itself raises questions about their awareness of the seriousness of the terms, or their sensitivity to racially charged language. But their reaction was not under investigation. Only Lowe’s alleged statements were, though the internal investigation approached the inquiry with the seriousness warranted by the allegation.
Deputy Ralph Lilavois was more detailed. He said Lowe was instructing camp children on how to make a fist and strike without hurting themselves, and instructed one of the children to stand up and show the others his fist. It was then that Lilavois said he heard Lowe make the “white power” comment, and that “he was both hurt and shocked by the comment,” according to the investigation.”
“I don’t think he truly meant that but was more like making a joke,” Lilavois told the investigator when asked of Lowe’s intent, explaining that Lowe is always the type to make jokes, say “inappropriate and immature things,” but wasn’t a racist. He thought it was not a reflection of who Lowe was.
Champion was sitting with another deputy at a checkout table, waiting for parents to pick up their children, when Nicole Quintieri, the PAL director who’d overheard the deputies talk about the statement, asked the deputies at the table about it. They said they hadn’t heard. Champion had worked with Lowe for a year and had never known him to make such charged statements, considering him supportive and honest.
Several other deputies who were present at the school said they’d not heard Lowe make the racially charged statement, though they;d heard him say something about his job and seeming to admonish the children. Some among them said they’d heard Lowe make inappropriate statements before, but “nothing anyone has ever taken offense to.” Lowe, one said, is known for going “too far” with his jokes. And one deputy, David Agata, who had been standing only a few feet away from Lowe at the time of the alleged statement, described at length what he had heard: that Lowe had been encouraging students and made a direct reference to “He-Man and the Masters of the Universe” when he said “I’ve got the power.” Agata remembered thinking to himself that the students were too young to catch the reference.
Agata would later feel “overwhelmed and surprised” to hear that Lowe had been reassigned, especially since he knew precisely what Lowe had said. When Towns was called back and asked in a second interview whether it was possible that he;d confused “white power” with “I’ve got the power,” Towns said it was. But Lilavois in his second interview insisted that he was “one hundred percent certain that I heard that he said ‘White Power.’ Like I said,” he continued, referring to his colleagues, “when I looked up and I saw the look on their faces that they had heard the same thing.”
Lowe told the investigator that he wasn’t “in the slightest or remotely in any way” racist, and had “absolutely” never used racially charged language, nor ever been counseled for anything approaching that sort of thing. When asked if he wanted to add anything, Lowe, according to the investigator’s report, said “he himself would feel horrible if anyone working with him were subjected to the allegation that was made. Cpl. Lowe also advised that he understands how someone could misinterpret something that was said if not in close proximity and engaged in other activities at the time.” He said he was looking forward to “the opportunity to apologize to his team and supervisors for the misunderstanding and the need for each of them to become involved in an investigation based on something he is responsible for.”
Ironically, the attorney present during the internal affairs interview with Lowe had to ask Lowe to explain the He-Man reference.