Police bias investigation reopened

EEOC accuses city department of failing to cooperate

September 01, 1999|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A federal civil rights agency that ruled the Baltimore Police Department violated officers' civil rights and retaliated against those who complained of racism has reopened its investigation of the department, according to a letter from the agency's director.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused police commanders of failing to cooperate during yearlong negotiations to settle the bias complaint and said that forced it to renew its inquiry.

The department "has failed to provide information," wrote Michael C. Fetzer, the acting district director of Baltimore's EEOC office, in an Aug. 20 letter. It was addressed to city attorneys and Sgt. Louis Hopson, who triggered the investigation by complaining of racism in the department.

Hopson, who was recently reinstated to the city force after winning a wrongful-termination lawsuit in state court, distributed the letter at a news conference yesterday in front of City Hall.

"The move by the federal EEOC further supports our belief that this agency and police commissioner have no intention of negotiating in good faith," said Hopson, who called top police officials "obstructionists."

The EEOC ruled in December that city police violated federal civil rights laws by disciplining black officers more harshly than whites and targeting black officers who complained of disparate treatment.

Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said yesterday that the EEOC wants every black officer who was fired in the past six years to be reinstated, which the department refuses to do.

Frazier said he offered to reduce the length of suspensions and review the terminations "on a case-by-case basis." The commissioner added, "I think it was more than a fair offer."

`Still talking'

Two lawyers for the Police Department watched the news conference but had little to say. "We don't try cases on TV," said Jerome Nicholas, the department's new chief of the legal affairs office.

He said the letter Hopson distributed was 11 days old and his office has communicated several times in the past week with the EEOC. "As far as we're concerned, the parties are still talking," Nicholas said.

But asked if there was any progress, he said, "I don't think so."

Disparities acknowledged

Frazier revamped the disciplinary process last year after Hopson and other officers testified at two City Council hearings in 1997 about racism. He acknowledged disparities in how black and white officers were treated but said there was no intentional racism.

Police commanders have vehemently denied retaliating against black officers.

Frazier maintains the problem was that white officers who committed department offenses escaped discipline, while their black colleagues did not. Black officers were fired fairly for such offenses, Frazier says.

The EEOC investigates complaints, usually in anticipation of a civil lawsuit, then issues a finding that may be used as a basis for the suit.

Fetzer could not be reached to comment; repeated calls to his office were not returned. His one-paragraph letter says police officials refused to identify officers who might be part of a class-action case, nor did they offer "appropriate remedies."

Hopson -- fired for allegedly lying on the witness stand in a rape case filed against a colleague, then ordered back on the force in July by a circuit judge -- stood alongside other fired officers and politicians at yesterday's announcement.

State Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV said police are undermining their stand in the community. "How can you have public safety when those you trust with safeguarding the city are discriminating against their own?" he asked.

Councilman Martin O'Malley, who is running for mayor and held hearings three years ago about racism in the department, said the issues "should have been put to rest with good will, cooperation, honesty and dialogue."

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