A longtime Seattle Department of Transportation employee who sent a black woman racist and threatening messages during the height of protests over the 2020 police killing of George Floyd still works with the city’s agency, despite concerns over his problematic history with the department and ongoing interaction with the public.
Two summers ago, Kirk Calkins, a 55-year-old white street-use inspector who has worked with the department for about 30 years, was angry at the Black Lives Matter protests and sent a black stranger on Facebook a series of posts in response to a public post she made about the movement.
“Why is black America getting away with this? ” he asked him. “The media will not show the truth, we will not condone black America in its tactics of taking advantage of working Americans.”
“When the black race continues to show ignorance [sic] and cannot use their head with simple common sense in the decision they make, that is, on them. They’re not above the law like they think we are [are] im tired of [sic] I will do what I want, when I want attitude, and not be responsible for their actions,” Calkins wrote.
But the message from Calkins that most alarmed the woman was the request that she “bend over and grab her ankles,” according to department disciplinary records obtained by KNKX. The unidentified woman told SDOT investigators she believed Calkins was referring to a violent sexual act and viewed her post as a threat. Calkins told investigators he meant the comment to mean “fuck you.”
A 30-day suspension and a $125,000 settlement
Department investigators looking into the case concluded that Calkins held “deeply racist beliefs about black people and displayed a willingness to threaten to use violence to advance those beliefs.” Despite the outcome of the investigation, Calkins was not fired. Instead, he received a 30-day suspension last year.
Additionally, the city of Seattle reached a settlement with Calkins earlier 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-based discrimination against him and other co-workers, including at least one black employee, retaliation and unfair hiring practices. The lawsuit was later amended to allege the city violated his First Amendment rights by sanctioning him for his social media activity. In the settlement, the city does not admit any wrongdoing.
SDOT received several public complaints following the exchanges on Facebook.
One person, whose name is redacted in public records, told investigators: ‘If a stranger on a forum behind a screen can elicit that reaction from him, how can he be trusted to represent the city of Seattle in public title when he is in the field?” Street use inspectors are responsible for inspecting construction sites and delineating the right-of-way.
A friend, whose name is also redacted, described how the woman at the center of the exchanges “called [her] cry relentlessly [that] morning about messages from a man she doesn’t know.
Another friend told the city’s transportation department that she was reaching out “because I feel it’s my responsibility as a friend and decent human being to report racial harassment and gaslighting from one of your employees…As a biracial woman myself, I am extremely saddened to know that people like Kirk work for our city and further spread hate and racism.
The survey’s fallout shows it remains difficult for government agencies to discipline employees with potentially damaging views, even as departments at the local and state levels embrace racial and social justice initiatives, the Seattle Department of Transportation stating that he “believes that transportation should meet the needs of communities of color.
Records show that at least one SDOT employee objected to Calkins continuing his work. Last summer, Christopher Luedke, an inspections manager, wrote to others at the agency: “I find it difficult to understand the extent of the damage this could possibly cause to the whole group of work as a team in terms of trust in SDOT to really uphold its stated principles in a meaningful and effective way.”
Luedke concluded that the agency let the public down and said he was professionally lost as a result.
SDOT worker accuses 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 believes 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 thought Floyd was “drugged, resisting arrest” and “wrong.”
“If he hadn’t resisted, 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 because he was talking specifically about the protesters.
Calkins told investigators he attended Nathan Hale High School when teenagers from Seattle’s Central District were bused in an effort to desegregate the schools.
“I played football with those guys,” he told investigators, while adding that African Americans preyed on white children.
“A bunch of kids pat you on the back of the neck, they call you redneck,” he said. “I was fat, overweight, scared, they preyed on the weak.”
Calkins said he was recovering from surgery after breaking his neck at work and on painkillers when he posted the Facebook posts, 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 home surgery. Investigators said others disputed that claim and saw the city or Seattle Department of Transportation listed as his employer on social media.
After Calkins was informed that a reporter had submitted a public records request asking for his disciplinary records, he went to court and tried to stop the city from releasing them. When that failed, he wrote to KNKX earlier this year:
“I watched the city I lived in and the city I worked in suffer protests, looting and physical injury from BLM and Antifa protesters,” he said. “SDOT and SDOT HR publicly embarrassed me, they had my work vehicle towed from my residence and I put my laptop in the car. I had no idea what was going on because SDOT HR did not m I said nothing, months passed and I had no idea why I had been put on administrative leave.
Records show Calkins was disciplined in at least two other cases: In 2003, the department demoted Calkins and suspended him for 30 days because he showed a supervisor sexually explicit photos of a co-worker. 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 colleague was consensual. Calkins said he showed the photos to a supervisor in an effort to defend his brother-in-law against any possible allegations of sexual harassment.
Three years later, the department suspended Calkins for a day after he threatened to shove a thermos of coffee down a colleague’s throat.
In a recent interview, Calkins repeated what he’s told supervisors over the years: that the city’s hiring practices are unfair, especially to him – an older white man.
“I’ve been held back for 30 years, I’ve been denied jobs because of my race and gender, when is that going to be enough? When are we going to start hiring the most qualified candidate at instead,” he wrote in a 2018 email to the city’s human resources department.
The City of Seattle’s human resources department did not respond to questions about Calkins and his allegations of unfairness. The union that represents Calkins and other city workers — Protec17 — also declined to comment.
Seattle Department of Transportation officials said they could not answer questions about why the city agreed to reach a settlement with Calkins, but made it clear they had hoped for a different outcome. The department directed questions about the settlement to the city attorney‘s office, but Anthony Derrick, the city attorney’s director of communications, declined to comment.
A 2018 report by Crosscut detailed frustrations with the City of Seattle’s human resources department, with some staff noting that complaints often went unanswered and that the various HR departments in specific offices alongside the central HR office in the city city created a heavy structure. In an email, Jamie Housen, communications director for Mayor Bruce Harrell, said Harrell continues to try to establish consistency across human resources departments.
“The city made me what I am today ‘a vocal white man demanding fairness,'” Calkins wrote in an email to KNKX.
“I’m a good person. I work hard. I treat everyone with respect until I’m treated differently,” Calkins said. well at all.”
“My thing is to be portrayed as someone I’m not.”