Multimillion-dollar bias lawsuits by police officers dismissed by judge

Balto. County department was accused of racism

January 23, 1999|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

In a sweeping and stinging opinion, a federal judge has dismissed two multimillion-dollar lawsuits accusing the Baltimore County Police Department of racial discrimination.

"Despite the sheer multitude of allegations, plaintiffs are unable to produce a scintilla of direct evidence of intentional racial discrimination or retaliation," Judge Andre M. Davis wrote in a summary attached to his 83-page opinion. "At virtually every turn, the record shows that any inference of intentional racial discrimination or retaliation is fatally undercut by facts."

The decision Wednesday ended a two-year legal battle between two black police officers and the county Police Department, where both are still employed.

The lawsuits, brought in U.S. District Court in Baltimore and jointly dismissed by Davis, were filed by Officers Keith M. Harris and Calvin W. Settle, who were assigned to the Western Traffic Division.

Harris filed a $1.8 million suit in December 1996, claiming that there was a pattern of racial discrimination and accusing a sergeant of showing off a noose in front of black officers.

Settle's suit, filed in March 1997, also mentioned the noose and alleged racial discrimination. It sought damages of almost $10 million.

Settle declined to comment yesterday, and Harris could not be reached. Neither man's attorney returned calls.

County police referred calls yesterday to County Attorney Virginia W. Barnhart, who characterized the case as "a mire of allegations" and said, "Obviously, we're very pleased."

The opinion, which exhaustively reviewed each plaintiff's many allegations, said repeated skirmishes between Settle and Harris and their superiors eventually poisoned the work atmosphere of Western Traffic and resulted in the reassignment of both officers. Harris is now a patrol officer in the Garrison Precinct, and Settle is a patrol officer in Woodlawn.

In addition, the opinion said, the tension prompted other black officers to seek or consider transfers out of the division.

"The two years [spring 1993 to spring 1995] following the filing of Settle's first EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] charge were marked by an incessant deterioration in the relationship between the plaintiffs and their supervisors in the relevant chain of command," Davis wrote.

"The picture sketched by the parties' submissions is of a workplace in which there existed palpable distrust and contempt on many sides."

The judge also reviewed in considerable detail Settle's allegation that, in front of him, a superior officer had displayed a noose.

The "noose" was a broomstick with a loop of rope or bungee cord taped to the end of it, according to Davis. When the controversy about it arose, police investigated and determined that it was a hand-fashioned device used to pry open a locked car through a partly open window.

Settle and Harris said in their lawsuits that the device was clearly a noose and was intended to offend.

In dismissing the allegation, Davis noted that other black officers in the unit who had seen the broomstick had not found it offensive. One told investigators that he "didn't pay that much attention to it," and a second said that when he heard Settle call it offensive, "I thought they were joking."

Davis also noted that on the day Settle saw the broomstick, Harris was not at work. As for Settle's complaint about the noose, Davis said, "the lack of frequency and the absence of any gesturing toward Settle or comments" negated his claim.

Barnhart said yesterday that she could not estimate how much time and money the county had spent on the lawsuit.

"It involved a large part of two of my attorneys' time over the course of the last year and a half," she said. She had not decided yesterday whether the county would seek to recover from the plaintiffs some or all of the costs involved in fighting the lawsuit.

Pub Date: 1/23/99

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