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Friday, May 16, 2003 02:20 pm

So Sue Me

Hasara gets her wish

SPD Lieutenant Lea Joy, seen here questioning Chief John Harris during a special City Council meeting regarding the Renatta Frazier case, is one of nine black officers filing a race discrimination lawsuit against the City of Springfield today. Joy claims
Ginny Lee

Two months ago, in the midst of a special City Council meeting, Mayor Karen Hasara made an unusual plea: She begged to be sued. "We're going to be in court. We want to be in court!" she said. Furthermore, she wanted this lawsuit to be filed posthaste. "I hope the Black Guardians will hurry up and sue us," she said.

Hasara's wish is about to be granted. Attorney Courtney Cox, who represents nine black Springfield police officers (seven current and two former cops, all members of the Black Guardians Association), says he will file a lawsuit on their behalf in U.S. District Court today.

Brian McFadden, Hasara's chief of staff, says the mayor saw a lawsuit as the only resolution to this case for two reasons: First, because settlements discussed with Cox and the Black Guardians in the past have shown the two sides to be "far, far, far apart," and, second, "the fact that we feel that we in the administration have our own story to tell on this about our efforts to assist and retain Officer Frazier." McFadden says personnel rules prevent him from discussing these efforts in any context other than a lawsuit.

Almost a year ago, the local branch of the NAACP had all nine plaintiffs file general race discrimination complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Cox filed more detailed amended complaints last September. In October, the U.S. Department of Justice issued the plaintiffs Right to Sue letters.

Cox names not only the City of Springfield but also six individuals as defendants: Mayor Hasara, Springfield Police Department chief John Harris, assistant chief Bill Pittman, former SPD internal affairs investigators Mitzi Vasconcelles and Mark Harms, and SPD legal advisor William Workman.

According to a copy of the complaint obtained by Illinois Times, the suit makes three claims on behalf of all nine plaintiffs--a Title VII claim of race discrimination, and claims of violation of their Constitutional rights and conspiracy to violate their Constitutional rights based on race.

The complaint contains two other claims--infliction of emotional distress and "false light"--on behalf of one plaintiff, Renatta Frazier. Frazier is the rookie cop who was the subject of scores of media reports stating that she was the target of an SPD internal affairs inquiry into whether she had failed to prevent the rape of a fellow officer's daughter. An Illinois Times investigation revealed that the rape had occurred before Frazier was called to the scene. The emotional distress claim is against all defendants; the false light claim is against Harris and Pittman only.

The one SPD official who has publicly admitted distributing erroneous information about Frazier is Sergeant Kevin Keen, SPD's public information officer. The day Illinois Times revealed that Frazier could not have prevented the rape, Keen told other reporters that he had neglected to provide the proper timeline due to an "unintentional oversight." Yet he is not listed as a defendant in the lawsuit.

Cox says that's because he remains unconvinced that Keen made any mistake. "I think he's being made to take the fall for Chief Harris and others," Cox says. "The comments Harris made to [local NAACP president Carl] Madison show that the chief knew what was going on."

Cox is referring to comments Madison says Harris made in private meetings with Pittman in November 2001 and January and March of 2002. At those meetings, Madison says, Harris told him that Frazier was being investigated to determine whether her actions "could have prevented harm to a citizen of Springfield." Harris has declined to comment on those meetings.

This is the second federal race discrimination lawsuit filed against the City of Springfield over police department matters in recent years. The NAACP filed suit in May 2000 and entered into a Consent Decree with the city in September 2001.

The lawsuit being filed today recounts many of the allegations BGA members have previously leveled at the City of Springfield and the SPD, especially when it comes to the Frazier incident. But Cox makes several new allegations in this complaint. For example, he charges that SPD could have made an arrest in the rape case months sooner than it did (September 10, 2002), except that "Chief Harris delayed the arrest until after Frazier resigned from the Police Department." Furthermore, the lawsuit says the original incident report, which contained the true time sequence, was "kept in a safe at the Police Department on orders by Chief Harris and known by only a select few officers," whose names are then listed.

The complaint also recites a host of injustices and indignities suffered by the other plaintiffs. Cox says he hoped the totality of these anecdotes gives a glimpse into the racially hostile environment of SPD.

The section pertaining to Lieutenant Lea Joy's near 20-year career with SPD claims white officers were reluctant to train her and often refused to ride with her or provide back-up when she was working patrol. She was given one of the worst vehicles and not issued an AR-15 rifle or a mobile data terminal when white officers were. She was denied positions she applied for even when she was told she was the most qualified and when she was the only officer to apply. White officers nicknamed her "African c---," according to the complaint.

Many of the allegations made by Joy and by Frazier are confirmed in this complaint by Officer Melody Holman, a 15-year veteran of SPD. Holman, who has never been outspoken, claims to have observed numerous incidents of racial hostility toward her black colleagues. "She heard numerous White officers make racial and derogatory statements about Joy. White officers made sure that Holman heard these remarks. Holman was often put in uncomfortable and racially hostile positions and environment[s] while White officers commented about Joy not being 'shit' and hundreds of other derogatory comments about Joy," according to the lawsuit.

"On one occasion, Frazier and Holman were walking together in the halls of the Springfield Police Department. Although numerous White officers spoke to Holman, these same White officers would not speak to Frazier. Even though Frazier attempted to speak to several of the White officers, the White officers did not return the greeting and ignored Frazier's presence," according to the lawsuit.

Cleo Moore, a younger black officer who has not spoken out before, also claims in this lawsuit to have witnessed and felt racial hostility at SPD. For three years, Moore was assigned to second shift during a time when both Joy and BGA vice-president Lieutenant Rickey Davis were sergeants on that same shift. "Moore was constantly subjected to comments by White officers indicating that Joy was not capable of doing the Sergeant's job and that Joy was stupid and did not deserve to be a sergeant. Moore also witnessed on many occasions White officers bypass Davis to ask questions of the White sergeants that should have been directed toward Davis," according to the lawsuit.

Many of the plaintiffs allege that SPD doesn't provide back-up for them when they work off-duty jobs, but back-up is available to white officers working off-duty jobs. They also allege that black officers are disciplined more severely than white officers for similar mistakes. One example cited claims BGA president Ralph Harris was falsely charged with a Rule 27 violation (lying in an internal affairs investigation) while white officers "who were found to have lied to secure a warrant were not charged with such violation or disciplined for such action."

According to this lawsuit, complaints against black officers by white citizens are handled differently than complaints against white officers by black citizens. Specifically, Davis--one of the most outspoken black officers--was criticized by Vasconcelles and Pittman for sending internal affairs a complaint that a white officer had used vulgar language toward a black citizen, the complaint states.

Besides these personal anecdotes, the lawsuit also spells out the low numbers of minorities on the department--currently just 14 black officers on a force of about 283, or a little less than 5 percent, far below the city's approximately 15 percent black population. Mayor Hasara pledged in March 2000 to try meet a goal of 15 percent minority police officers by the year 2005.

The black officers' requested remedy includes an award of lost salary and benefits, plus interest, for Frazier; compensatory damanges for mental anguish suffered by all plaintiffs; and punitive damanges against the individual defendants. The lawsuit also asks the court to monitor SPD's recruitment, testing, and employment practices for the next five years.

In 1998, Cox represented a black police officer in Carbondale in a somewhat similar race discrimination case. The Carbondale Police Department had more minority representation than Springfield (six black officers on a force of 57, or about 11 percent), but one officer complained that he had been unfairly denied a promotion because of his race. Halfway into the presentation of witnesses, the City of Carbondale offered to settle the case, giving the officer his promotion plus a cash award. The chief of police was replaced.

Cox says he would welcome a similar outcome here.

The Carbondale plaintiff "got promoted, he got money, and Carbondale got a better police department," Cox says. "Hopefully, when we're finished here, Springfield will have a better police department--a department able to recruit and retain minority officers, and a department that deals with employees and the community in a racially neutral way."

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