Seattle employee is found to hold racist beliefs; then city pays him $125K in settlement
A longtime employee of the Seattle Department of Transportation who sent a Black woman racist and threatening messages at the height of the protests over the police killing of George Floyd in 2020 is still working with the city agency, despite concerns over his problematic history with the department and continued interaction with the public.
Two summers ago, Kirk Calkins, a 55-year-old white street use inspector who has worked with the department for approximately 30 years, was angry over the Black Lives Matter protests and sent a Black stranger on Facebook a series of messages in response to a public post she made about the movement.
“Why is Black America getting away with this?” he posted on Facebook. “The media won’t show the truth, we are not going to take a blind eye to Black America in their tactics of taking advantage of hard working Americans.”
“When the Black race continues to show egnorance [sic] and can not use their head with basic common sense in the decision they make, that is on them. They are not above the law as they think they are, we [are] tired of the im [sic] going to do what I want, when I want attitude, and not be accountable for their actions,” Calkins wrote to her.
But the message from Calkins that most alarmed the woman was the demand that she “bend over and grab her ankles," according to department discipline records obtained by KNKX. The unidentified woman told SDOT investigators that she believed Calkins was referencing a violent sexual act and viewed his message as a threat. Calkins told investigators he intended the comment to mean “screw you.”
A 30-day suspension and $125,000 settlement
Department investigators who looked into the matter concluded that Calkins holds “deeply racist beliefs regarding Black people and displayed a willingness to threaten violence in furtherance of those beliefs.” Despite the outcome of the investigation, Calkins was not fired. Instead, he received a 30-day suspension last year.
In addition, the City of Seattle reached a settlement with Calkins at the beginning of this year, paying him $125,000. The settlement stems from a 2020 lawsuit in which Calkins outlines a long list of grievances, including age and race discrimination against him and other colleagues, including at least one Black employee, retaliation and unfair hiring practices. The lawsuit was later amended to allege that the city violated his First Amendment rights by disciplining him for his social media activity. In the settlement, the city admits no wrongdoing.
SDOT received several complaints from the public as a result of the Facebook exchanges.
One person, whose name is redacted in the public records, told investigators: “If a stranger on a forum behind a screen can elicit this reaction from him, how can he be trusted to represent the city of Seattle in a public capacity when out in the field?” Street use inspectors are responsible for inspecting construction sites and delineating the right of way.
One friend, whose name is also redacted, described how the woman at the center of the exchanges “called [her] crying relentlessly [that] morning about messages from a man she does not know.”
Another friend told the city’s transportation department that she was reaching out “because I feel it is my responsibility as a friend and a decent human being to report harassment and racial gaslighting from one of your employees... As a bi-racial woman myself I am extremely saddened to know people like Kirk work for our city and further spread hatred and racism.”
The fallout of the investigation shows that it remains difficult for government agencies to discipline employees with potentially harmful views, even as departments at local and state levels espouse race and social justice initiatives, with the Seattle Department of Transportation declaring that it “believes transportation must meet the needs of communities of color.”
Records show that at least one SDOT employee objected to Calkins continuing on the job. Last summer, Christopher Luedke, an inspections manager wrote to others at the agency: "I find it difficult to wrap my head around the magnitude of damage this may eventually cause to the entire work group as a team in terms of trust in SDOT to truly uphold its stated principles in meaningful and effective ways."
Luedke concluded that the agency had failed the public, and said he was professionally at a loss as a result.
SDOT employee accuses the city of discrimination
On May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, by kneeling on his neck for approximately nine minutes. In an interview with department officials, Calkins said he believed those protesting in the streets “should have looked into the situation” regarding Floyd’s killing before setting cars on fire and damaging buildings. He said he believed Floyd was “drugged up, resisting arrest” and “was wrong.”
“If he didn’t resist none of this would have happened,” he said.
But Calkins also said he shouldn’t have referenced the Black race when writing to the woman on Facebook since he meant protesters specifically.
Calkins told investigators that he attended Nathan Hale High School when teens from Seattle's Central District were bused in in an effort to desegregate schools.
“I played football with these guys,” he told investigators, while adding that African Americans had picked on the white kids.
“A bunch of kids slap you on the back of the neck, they call you redneck,” he said. “I was fat, overweight, scared, they picked on the weak.”
Calkins said he was recovering from surgery after breaking his neck while working and on pain medication when he sent the Facebook messages but claimed the woman had “race-baited him.”
He also said his Facebook profile did not list the Seattle Department of Transportation as an employer, and that he made the comments as a private citizen while on leave and recovering from the surgery at home. Investigators said others disputed that assertion, and had seen the city or Seattle Department of Transportation listed as his employer on social media.
After Calkins was notified that a reporter had submitted a public records request asking for his discipline records, he went to court and attempted to stop the city from releasing them. When that failed, he wrote to KNKX earlier this year:
“I watched the city that I lived in and the city I worked in go through protests, looting and physical harm from BLM and Antifa protestors,” he said. “SDOT and SDOT HR publicly embarrassed me, they had my work vehicle towed from my residence and I put my lap top computer in the car. I had no idea what was going on as SDOT HR told me nothing, months went by and I had no idea why I was placed on administrative leave.”
Records show that Calkins was disciplined in at least two other instances: In 2003, the department demoted Calkins and recommended a 30-day suspension because he showed a supervisor sexually explicit photos of a colleague. The department did not follow through with the suspension.
In a recent interview, Calkins explained that his brother-in-law, who also worked for the city's transportation department, gave him the photos as proof that the affair he was having with this coworker was consensual. Calkins said he showed the photos to a supervisor in an attempt to defend his brother-in-law from any possible claims of sexual harassment.
Three years later, the department suspended Calkins for a day after he threatened to shove a coffee thermos down a colleague’s throat.
In a recent interview, Calkins repeated what he has told supervisors over the years: that the city’s hiring practices are unfair, especially to him – an older, white male.
“I have been held back for 30 years, I have been passed up for jobs because of my race and sex when is enough going to be enough? When are we going to start hiring the most qualified candidate instead,” he wrote in a 2018 email to the city's Department of Human Resources.
The City of Seattle’s Human Resources Department did not respond to questions when asked about Calkins and his claims of unfairness. The union that represents Calkins and other city employees – Protec17 – also declined to comment.
Seattle Department of Transportation officials said it could not answer questions about why the city had agreed to reach a settlement with Calkins but made clear they had hoped for a different outcome. The department directed questions about the settlement to the city attorney’s office, but Anthony Derrick, communications director for the city attorney, declined to comment.
A 2018 reportby Crosscut detailed frustrations with the City of Seattle's Human Resources Department, with some staff noting that complaints often went unaddressed and that the various HR departments in specific offices alongside the city’s central HR office created an unwieldy structure. In an email, Jamie Housen, director of communications for Mayor Bruce Harrell, said Harrell is continuing to try to build consistency among HR departments.
“The City has made me what I am today ‘a Vocal white Male asking for fairness,’” Calkins wrote in an email to KNKX.
“I’m a good person. I work hard. I treat everyone with respect until I’m being treated differently,” Calkins said. “If you’re going to judge me for being looped up on pain medication, that’s not right at all.”
“My thing is being painted as a person that I’m not.”