Five Black District of Columbia police officers, who filed a racial discrimination complaint two years ago against department officials, have been awarded $900,000 in compensatory damages by a federal jury.
The verdict was reached earlier this month following 11 days of testimony in U. S. District Court after a jury panel determined that the officials had retaliated against the plaintiffs for filing the complaint, by singling them out for transfer and demotion.
A day after its July 7 ruling against the District, the panel awarded Donald Smalls and William James $250,000 each and Frazier Caudle and Nikeith Goins $200,000 each. An additional issue of back pay still must be resolved.
Megan Moran-Gates of the law firm Relman, Dane & Colfax, which represented the officers, said the court’s finding was that the city had punished the plaintiffs for exercising their right to complain about discrimination.
“We think it’s a very important victory, because the right to complain about discrimination or the right to speak up really means nothing if you’re punished for exercising that right,” Moran-Gates said. “It’s important to protect one’s rights against retaliation as well as protecting one’s rights against discrimination.”
At-large Councilman Phil Mendelson added that he was appalled that in this day, that kind discrimination remains among the police force.
“I think that it’s outrageous that there’s still discrimination in the department,” he said.
“It’s hard to say how extensive the problem is today based on a case from 2006 under a different police chief,” he continued. “But nevertheless, there’s no place for discrimination.”
The officers had been part of an elite, hand-picked unit of 12 to 20 plainclothes police formed to crack major criminal activities.
According to court documents obtained by the AFRO, in June 2006, after experiencing and witnessing racial discrimination by a new lieutenant, the officers had an anonymous letter of complaint sent to their commander.
Four days later, the commander held a meeting in which it was announced that – for the first time ever – officers in their unit would have to re-apply for their positions. After that process was announced, the officers filed a complaint describing discrimination and ensuing retaliation.
As a result of allegations contained in the officers’ complaint, the lieutenant, Ronald Wilkins, was investigated by the Metropolitan Police Department and adverse action was recommended, according to court records.
Meanwhile, Wilkins who is White and was cited for dereliction of duty and providing false statements to internal investigators, found out who was behind the anonymous complaint.
He also was alleged to have been given a more prestigious position after being reprimanded, and was also allowed to recommend who would remain in the officers’ unit. The five officers were subsequently removed.
The officers also said they faced retaliation by being transferred to inferior positions in their complaint filed with the D.C. Office of Human Rights and federal government.
MPD spokeswoman Gwen Crump said the department is not satisfied with the jury’s decision.
“The department is aware of the 2006 allegation and subsequent court decision,” Crump said in an e-mailed statement to the AFRO. “At this time, the department intends to appeal this decision.”
But Mendelson said the city should just ante up the money and move on.
“By appealing and not paying, all the District does is increase the amount it owes without getting any thing in return,” Mendelson said. “Two or three years later, when it’s all over, the city would have gotten no services , so it would just be better to pay in the beginning.”