Melinda Henneberger

KC firefighter has been reinstated, but his n-word rant at Hooters was worse than we knew

Hooters in Wichita is closing at the end of business on Sunday.
Hooters in Wichita is closing at the end of business on Sunday. AP

Remember that Kansas City firefighter charged with spitting on a 3-year-old in an Overland Park Hooters and calling that child the n-word? He’s already gotten his job back, his lawyer says, ahead of his trial next month for battery, assault and disorderly conduct. Yet according to the child’s family, what happened that night was even worse than we knew from the initial story.

The child’s grandfather, Raymond L. Harris, says the firefighter not only called him the n-word, too, but also threatened to shoot him. Then, according to boy’s great-uncle, Michael Mitchell, the restaurant manager called police. Not to report the spitter and slurrer, mind you, but to report his family. The manager kicked them out instead of the firefighter. And while Mitchell stayed behind and settled up, the rest of their party fled in fear, without even pausing to grab their untouched birthday cake, despite having done nothing wrong.

At first, this seemed to be a story about one man, 42-year-old first responder Terrence Jeremy Skeen, a 15-year veteran of the Kansas City Fire Department. Skeen’s much-admired calling in life, in theory, anyway, involves putting his life on the line for any Kansas Citian who needs his help. Yet here he was, charged with behavior befitting such a straight-up racist that he’d raged and spit at a little kid. Skeen’s lawyer, Tom Bath, said his client’s side of the story “will all come out at the trial,” but he’s pleading not guilty and is back on the job, after being “suspended incorrectly.”

Whatever happens to Skeen, though, the fuller, sadder and more telling account of that night also involves the cascade of assumptions made by other, not-screaming and not-spitting folks on the evening of Feb. 26.

It was Harris’ son, who’d turned 18 that day, who wanted to celebrate at Hooters with his family. About 25 relatives turned out for him, along with a few friends from work, to spend some money and spend some time together. Some had just arrived and were ordering when Harris went chasing after the 3-year-old. Just as Harris caught up with him, a woman sitting nearby asked, “Sir, excuse me, is that child with you?” That’s my grandchild, yes. “That guy over at the bar just spit on your grandson.”

“You need to get that f---ing girl and take her back to the other side where you came from,” Harris says Skeen called. He’s a boy, Harris answered, flustered. But more to the point, “Did you spit on my grandson?” Harris says Skeen responded this way: “F--- you, you (n-word). I will spit on you. F--- you! I will shoot you!”

The firefighter’s friend weighed in, too, Harris says, if only to state the obvious: “He don’t like kids of that kind.”

Harris returned the child to his mom and was about to go back to the firefighter to resume their little chat when some of his relatives intervened. “I was very upset, angry and emotional and my family had to take me outside ... into the parking lot to let out my anger and frustration.” Mitchell kept telling him, “It’s OK; we’re going to handle this, and we’re going to call the police.”

They were still outside, taking some deep breaths, when Mitchell’s wife came out and informed them that the cops had already been called, but on them. In fact, she said, the manager had asked them to pay up and leave — they were kicked out, he said — but he’d said nothing at all to the firefighter.

That’s when, except for Mitchell, their group scattered like a bomb had gone off. They were afraid Skeen had a gun, and afraid, too, Harris says, “because of stories you hear about the police shooting black people.”

When the cops did arrive, and Mitchell was the only one standing there, “one police jumped out and said, ‘Where is everybody? We were told there were 20 to 30 people out here causing a disturbance.’ ”

It wasn’t like that, Mitchell told them. He also said he wasn’t leaving until they talked to the real source of the problem, and pointed out Skeen. Then another of the half dozen officers who’d responded told Mitchell that he was not welcome back inside, but needed to pay up before leaving. So on top of everything, Mitchell said, “they were making it like we were trying to eat and dash,” after a long-planned party for which they’d been in repeated contact with the restaurant.

He did pick up the tab — $240 for the orders already served — left his number with one of the officers, Shawn Fernandez, and headed for home. Before he even arrived, he received the first of three calls from Fernandez, who told him that as they’d been taking witness statements and putting together what had really happened, Skeen had told them, “It’s OK, I’m a firefighter.” Definitely not OK, Mitchell says Fernandez told him. “We don’t want anyone to think because he has a badge, he’ll get away with this.”

A spokesman for the Overland Park Police Department, Officer John P. Lacy, confirmed that “What we got called to was a disturbance” and that Fernandez had reached out to the family.

Hooters seems to have tried to make things right, too. The CEO wrote to Mitchell and told him they’d suspended the manager, and offered to refund his money, though Mitchell said that wasn’t necessary, because Harris had reimbursed him already. A PR representative of the company reiterated its earlier statement that “Hooters does not tolerate any harassment or discriminatory language, the safety and well-being of our guests and employees are our utmost priorities.”

But Harris remains so upset his voice shakes when he talks about that night. “This world is so cruel,” he says quietly. If your adored grandchild had been spit on, wouldn’t your voice be shaking, too? And even beyond Skeen’s behavior, the assumptions made that night were dangerous, and in no way out of the ordinary.

The manager apparently figured it was the black family who had to be at fault, and that they were the ones who needed to leave. How long is that going to be the default position?

The police, who handled the situation well once they learned the facts, arrived with those same assumptions, only knowing what they’d been told.

The firefighter seems to have assumed that he’d tell the cops who and what he was and that would be that; had that happened before? And the family had some assumptions, too, about how wrong things could go if they hung around.

Wrong, just for starters, like they’d gone in February at that Applebee’s in Independence, where a manager and police officer accused two innocent African-American women of not paying their bill the night before. Or wrong like they went last week in Philly, where two black men were arrested in a Starbucks while doing nothing but waiting for a business associate.

Philadelphia police released the 911 call and officer transmissions after the arrest of two black men at a Starbucks on April 12 that has drawn national attention.

Or even wrong like they went in Rochester Hills, Michigan, where an African-American kid who missed his school bus one day last week got lost walking and wound up being shot at after a couple assumed that he’d knocked on their door not because he was looking for directions but because he was trying to rob them.

Or God forbid, wrong like they went in Sacramento, where a young black man died last month after police shot him in his own grandmother’s backyard. The weapon they thought they’d seen turned out to be a cell phone.

So why would anyone who isn’t guilty run? See above. In leaving in a panic after the cops were called to Hooters, Mitchell’s family was really only assuming what they knew to be true: that even in a situation as benign as a toddler toddling a few feet away, an interaction can go from nothing to something before you can say, “Who had the Cobb salad?”

“We was having a good time until all of that happened,” Harris said. “But it turned into a disaster.”

Better to disappear first and ask questions later, to keep a night gone wrong from getting any worse.

A St. Louis woman says she and her friend were racially profiled at an Independence Applebee’s restaurant when staff accused them of leaving without paying their bill.