York-Poquoson Sheriff’s Office responds to deputy’s blackface Halloween costume

Posted at 7:10 PM, Nov 15, 2017

YORK COUNTY, Va. - The York-Poquoson Sheriff's Office held a press conference Wednesday to address complaints about a costume one of its deputies wore during Halloween.

The deputy in question, Jean Browning, reportedly dressed up as the African American politician Frederica Wilson, who represents Florida's 24th district in the U.S. House of Representatives. The costume included the deputy appearing in blackface. The photos were posted on social media.

The York-James City-Williamsburg (YJCW) Branch of the NAACP issued a press release condemning Deputy Browning's costume and calling for her removal from the York County School District:

The York-James City-Williamsburg (YJCW) Branch of the NAACP is appalled by the surfacing of Facebook photographs showing York County Sheriff’s Deputy Jean Browning in a blackface Halloween costume depicting Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a United States Congresswoman from Florida. For decades, blackface has been synonymous with hate, degradation, and bigotry. Originally, white actors wore tattered and worn clothing, applied burnt cork to blacken their skin,
and used soot to create the appearance of wider, fuller lips to imitate the appearance of African Americans. White performers profited from blackface by mocking black behavior and culture and promoting false stereotypes that African Americans were lazy, destitute, and unintelligible.

On Monday, November 6, 2017, YJCW NAACP Branch President, Brian J. Smalls, Esq. and Chair of our Legal Redress Committee, John Tarley, Esq., convened a meeting to address the Branch’s concerns to York County officials. The consensus of all in attendance was that Deputy Browning’s decision to dress in blackface was wholly inappropriate and completely unacceptable. Although it was acknowledged that our concerns were legitimate, it was clear that there would be no disciplinary action taken against Deputy Browning by the sheriff’s department. It was commented to Mr. Smalls that had Deputy Browning been wearing a “noose” or a derogatory sign, disciplinary action would be appropriate. However, it is the Branch’s position that blackface in and of itself should be enough to warrant disciplinary action.

Deputy Browning has been the York County School Division’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program instructor. One of DARE’s central missions is establishing positive relationships between students and law enforcement. Deputy Browning’s conduct expressly contradicts DARE’s goal by mocking members of the York County community and school division. In recognition of her offensive act, the York County School District will request that the sheriff’s department reassign Deputy Browning out of the DARE program, and out of the
school system altogether.

York County is a culturally and racially diverse area, and should seek inclusivity of all community members rather than division. It is inappropriate and disheartening when anyone mocks someone’s race, but it is inexcusable when someone connected with our law enforcement finds it acceptable to paint their face to impersonate African-Americans.

Sheriff J.D. Diggs responded to the NAACP during the press conference:

In an effort to have full disclosure about the events that took place and my efforts and thought process, I offer the following:

A deputy appeared in a Halloween costume depicting Congresswoman Wilson as a well-dressed person wearing the Congresswoman’s signature red hat. She did not mock her or make any attempt to degrade her. Deputy Browning’s intent was simply to portray Wilson as a political celebrity as Browning’s boyfriend was in a costume portraying Donald Trump. The combined intent of the couple was to convey the message of how funny it would be for two political figures that were at odds with each other to go to a party together. There was no intent to either mock or degrade either Congresswoman Wilson or President Trump, or for that matter to even make any kind of political statement.

At a November 6 meeting with the NAACP, they expressed their concerns that some individuals or groups may have been offended by Deputy Browning’s Halloween costume depicting herself as Congresswoman Frederica Wilson. I perceived that meeting to be the first of several as we would strive to come to a solution that would further the needs of both organizations and help gain a better mutual understanding of our positions. I then followed up with a phone call to Branch President Brian Smalls on the following Wednesday evening. During that conversation I tried to be sure that there were no misconceptions about anything that either of us has said during the meeting. I further asked for input from the NAACP about possible remedies or solutions to the problem as none were discussed during the initial meeting. He told me that the committee would be meeting the next week. Today, I was quite surprised to have been made aware of a press release as I anticipated that there would be more meaningful open dialog regarding this matter. I had offered to discuss the possibility of sensitivity training with input from the NAACP and I had already instructed my staff to search for additional training.

Between our meeting and the phone conversation, I felt that it was understood that I agreed that some type of corrective action would be taken, but that action would be a personnel matter and was not a matter that could be discussed because of privacy issues. I did not hear back from the NAACP until 4:22 pm today when I was notified by email that they were putting out a press release. I am disappointed that another meeting was not scheduled to allow us to meet again in an effort to resolve this issue. I take situations like this seriously as they can impact the relationship between the Sheriff’s Office and the community.

Next, in determining what type of corrective action is to be taken, I must look at the totality of the circumstances, the history of the individual involved, what the various types of corrective actions that might be necessary or available, and the impact on how the community perceives the Sheriff’s Office.

Browning has been a deputy for 20-years and a D.A.R.E. Officer for 10-years with 9 Letters of Commendation. She has never been accused of any type of racial transgression and is known as a kind and caring person who would do anything for anyone.

I must now look at the degree of seriousness of the alleged offense, the intent of person involved, the history of the person, our relationship with the community, the impact on the community as a whole, and the proper remedy to the situation.

Based on all of the circumstances and the need for the community to realize that the Sheriff’s Office takes race relations seriously, I have decided that it would be in the best interest for all concerned to reassign this deputy to another position within the Sheriff’s Office.

Stay with News 3 for updates.