Here is what a District government official told a white, Chicago-based television producer about his bid to sell the D.C. police department 24 community education television segments: "The host's dialect did not blend in with the dialect of the general population of the District of Columbia."
The author of that remark said he was referring only to a "midwestern accent." District police say the comment was offensive and racist. And again, city officials find themselves in the middle of a debate about racial sensitivity.
The missive that inspired the criticism was sent on Aug. 17 by city procurement officer Sidney R. Younger to Peter Karl, a former investigative television reporter in Chicago.
"It was unprofessional and very inappropriate," Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said of the letter.
"It is racist and stupid," said Terrance W. Gainer, executive assistant police chief.
Karl's television production company had offered to prepare 24 half-hour Crime Watch episodes on community policing, most-wanted criminals and crime prevention, at a cost of $28,455 apiece. As in similar videos produced for Chicago and other cities, Karl is the on-air host of the shows, which are intended to build public confidence in the police.
But a D.C. police evaluation committee had some reservations about Karl's plan. The August letter asks Karl "what course of action, if any, do you plan on taking to ensure effective communication and blend in with the general population of the District of Columbia?"
The District population is majority black--the latest U.S. census estimate puts it at 62 percent African American. But the letter did not specify what was meant by suggestions that the show "blend in" with the "general population."
Karl said he asked Younger to explain and was told to "go out and mix with the people in the District for a half an hour and I would know what they meant." Karl said he interpreted the city's comments to mean he needed an African American host. While believing the remarks to be inappropriate, Karl's firm offered to accept a different host for the shows.
"I cannot believe anyone would put in writing this type of racist attitude," Karl said. "It was an insult to every African American that lives in the District of Columbia."
But Younger, now an investigator with the D.C. inspector general's office, said he was referring only to Karl's midwestern accent. "If someone is speaking to you and says you have a New York dialect. . . .that is what I was referring to," Younger said.
Elliott B. Branch, acting director of contracting and procurement and Younger's former boss, said he will withhold judgment on the intent of the remark until he investigates further. "If it was a racially related remark, it was inappropriate," said Branch, who was appointed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) to his post in August. "What I am saying is let's not assume it was a racially related remark. I caution against rushing to judgment."
The reaction to the Younger letter evokes a controversy that erupted in January after a white aide to Williams used the word "niggardly" during a meeting attended by several African American aides. Although the word has no racist connotation--it means stingy or miserly--it was interpreted by some as an insult.
Williams--who was criticized at the time for quickly accepting David Howard's resignation as director of the constituent services office--is taking a more cautious approach this time.
"The mayor will not rush to comment until he has all the facts," his press secretary, Peggy Armstrong, said yesterday, adding that Williams does expect to get a report on the matter.
The status of the contract remains unclear. A letter the city sent Karl on Thursday says his bid was rejected and the contract awarded to a District firm, SRB Productions Inc., run by Sheila Brooks, an African American woman who has won a series of recent awards for her work. But Branch said yesterday that the letter was sent in error and that the contract had not been awarded.
Karl has done work for the District police department, preparing about 15 videos without going through competitive bidding. Ramsey said giving the previous work to Karl's firm was appropriate because the total bill did not exceed a required bidding limit.
Ramsey, a veteran of the Chicago Police Department, knew Karl when he did video work for that agency. Even if Karl has a midwestern accent, Ramsey said, he does not understand why that would affect his ability host the shows. Ramsey and Gainer said they have been impressed with Karl's work.
"Certainly, throughout the United States, people have different accents," Ramsey said. "But I am not aware of any communication problems, or any interpreters being needed, anywhere in the country, whether you are from the furthest reaches of New England or Louisiana."
Karl said that if he has lost the contract, he intends to appeal.
To see a video clip of Peter Karl, go to washingtonpost.com/metro.