EEOC finds police bias Black officers receive harsher punishments

civil rights violated

'Centralized practice' seen

Department officials deny allegations and point to their progress

December 23, 1998|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Police Department violated federal civil rights laws, punishing black officers more harshly than whites and retaliating against those who complained, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has determined.

Current and former black officers could use the EEOC report as the basis for lawsuits against the city alleging racial discrimination.

EEOC officials came to the conclusions while reviewing complaints filed by former Sgt. Louis H. Hopson Jr. The officer, who is black, was fired this year after a police trial board concluded he had made a false statement during a trial in Baltimore Circuit Court.

An 18-year veteran and former officer of the year, Hopson contended that he was dismissed for exposing racial discrimination within the department.

Police Department leaders denied the allegations and contend they have taken the necessary steps to address department discrimination allegations, including hiring more black officers and employing them in the disciplinary review process.

The commission will schedule a meeting with the two sides to discuss a settlement.

The EEOC investigates a complaint, usually in anticipation of a lawsuit, then issues a finding that can be used as a basis for a suit. The federal commission decided in Hopson's case that:

Testimony and documents reveal that black police officers were treated disparately with respect to discipline.

Black officers who file racial discrimination complaints against the department are subjected to retaliatory actions, including being targeted for internal department investigations.

The Baltimore Police Department had a "centralized practice" of punishing African-American officers more harshly than whites, including firings, constituting a pattern of race discrimination.

Hopson, 47, was elated by the finding and called it a "blockbuster." Hundreds of current and former black police officers in Baltimore have filed similar EEOC complaints, including dozens of officers dismissed through the disciplinary process, said Hopson, who is seeking his job back.

"It vindicates me and the rest of the African-American officers," Hopson said yesterday. "My job should have never been taken from me. When I started, I had a clean record, and because we filed complaints, they started coming after us."

Although acknowledging embedded and historical department racism, the department has denied Hopson's allegations, including that complaining black officers suffered retaliation.

Since Thomas C. Frazier became police commissioner in 1994, the representation of black officers on the force has doubled to 36 percent. Frazier also has promoted black commanders to oversee discipline, hiring and training while revamping trial boards to ensure minority participation.

"The whole issue of equity is the subject of all of the changes that have been made over the last 18 months," Frazier said yesterday. "I look forward to sitting down with the federal EEOC representatives to walk through the changes we have made over the last six months."

Racial problems on the police force became public two years ago during City Council hearings by the Legislative Investigation Committee with Hopson and other black officers.

Hopson was promoted to sergeant in 1992 while also becoming an investigator for the Vanguard Justice Society, a group that represents 700 black Baltimore police officers. He testified of widespread racial slurs, pranks and harassment of black officers.

Hopson was initially relieved of his supervisory duties because of a domestic-abuse conviction in the 1980s; he had been accused of assaulting a former girlfriend. A 1996 federal law prohibits anyone convicted of domestic abuse from possessing a gun, regardless of when the offense occurred. Hopson was one of three officers affected after the department conducted a criminal background check on its 3,200 officers.

A three-member disciplinary board later recommended Hopson's dismissal on an unrelated complaint over the accuracy of court testimony.

In August, the City Council's Legislative Investigations Committee recommended that the city turn over the process of investigating and disciplining officers to authorities outside the department.

The report "pretty much confirms everything we said," said Councilman Martin O'Malley, who chaired the council hearings. "We were out there fairly early on an ugly issue, and I think this shows our committee was right on the mark."

The city's Community Relations Commission also concluded that the department has a built-in racial bias in which black officers are more likely to be disciplined and fired than their white colleagues. A 1996 study by a former officer showed that between 1995 and 1996, black officers were dismissed from the force three times more often than their white colleagues.

Another black officer, Sgt. Robert Richards, has filed a $13.5 million lawsuit against the city, alleging that his transfer from the helicopter division to a patrol position in the Western District was discriminatory.

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