City police sergeant negotiates settlement in discrimination suit

1996 filing exposed racial divisions within department

May 17, 2000|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN STAFF

A Baltimore police sergeant who filed a $13.5 million discrimination suit against the city in 1996 has negotiated a confidential settlement, ending a case that exposed years of racial division inside the Police Department.

Settling the case could help city police address lingering racial problems and give new Commissioner Edward T. Norris a relatively clean slate. The department is negotiating with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which found evidence of racial discrimination in 1998.

Months of court-ordered talks with a mediator helped produce the proposed settlement in the suit brought by Sgt. Robert Richards, which produced sensational statements in depositions of top city police officials.

Neither Richards nor his lawyer, Joseph Mallon, would comment on the terms of the agreement or on the lawsuit they filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore nearly four years ago.

"I want to move forward in a positive light," said Richards, who is assigned to the tactical unit.

Sean Malone, the Police Department's chief legal counsel, said yesterday that the agreement proves that Mayor Martin O'Malley is serious about addressing racial problems on the force.

"The settlement is an indication that the mayor and Commissioner Norris are committed to healing the past old wounds of this department. The only way the department can address this is by effectively dealing with these issues. We feel we have done that with this settlement."

Sgt. Richard Hite, president of the Vanguard Justice Society, which represents black officers, agreed. "This is a major step in a long path toward changing relations with the Baltimore Police Department," he said.

City Hall and police sources said Richards, a former helicopter pilot, will receive a substantial amount of money, be promoted to lieutenant and might later head a new helicopter unit, which has been grounded since a fatal crash in 1998.

The Richards settlement is on today's schedule of the five-member Board of Estimates, which controls city spending. The board is being asked to approve the settlement, listed as "confidential" on the public document.

Richards filed suit in 1996 after he was promoted to sergeant but was moved out of the helicopter unit -- where he had been a pilot -- and ordered to supervise a patrol squad in the Western District.

He complained that his transfer was rooted in discrimination by Thomas C. Frazier, then the commissioner. The department argued that it was standard practice to transfer an officer upon promotion.

The lawsuit became far from routine. Richards' lawyer, attempting to show a pattern of bias, deposed top city officials, including Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

Also required to testify were Frazier and Ronald L. Daniel, then the department's highest ranking black commander. Daniel called Frazier a racist, prompting Schmoke to oust him from command and banish him for three years to a small City Hall office.

O'Malley named Daniel police commissioner shortly after being elected mayor. Daniel quit less than two months later.

This month, Richards was acquitted of departmental charges that he sexually harassed several female officers and other employees at the Western District. He accused the department of filing the charges to get back at him for filing the discrimination suit.

Officials are barred from publicly discussing the terms of Richards' settlement because of the confidentiality agreement.

Richards tested well on an exam for lieutenants a few years ago but was prevented by department rules from being promoted because of the sexual harassment case, which was then pending. Department officials said the promotion will be made within a month.

They said Richards will remain in the tactical unit, which includes the helicopter unit. That unit has not flown since Officer Barry Wood was killed in the crash of a two-seat Schweizer nearly two years ago.

The sources said the city is proposing to use larger, four-seat models made by McDonnell Douglas-Boeing. The Schweizer models had a history of crashes, many linked to maintenance or engine problems, including the incident that killed Wood. The city hopes to lease five aircraft from Boeing for $1.7 million a year, with an option to buy the helicopters for $1 each at the end of 10 years. The funding would include up to 4,000 hours of flying time and fuel.

The previous contract with Schweizer cost the city $1.1 million a year. The craft were leased from a private company based at Martin State Airport, which also was responsible for maintenance. Flying time was limited to about 3,000 hours a year. Top police officials cautioned that no deal has been made with any company.

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