Officers' suit alleges racial bias in city police force

Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark (left) and Mayor Martin O'Malley discuss the city's declining crime rate.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark (left) and Mayor Martin O'Malley discuss the city's declining crime rate.(Sun photo by Andre F. Chung)
Twenty-one African-American current and former city police officers filed a federal class-action lawsuit yesterday, alleging long-running and rampant discrimination within the Baltimore Police Department.

The lawsuit, filed at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, accuses the department of condoning a hostile workplace, blocking black officers from promotion, levying uneven discipline and retaliating against officers who spoke out against discrimination. It also alleges that racism led to the firing last month of former police Commissioner Kevin P. Clark.

The group of officers seeks the appointment of an independent monitor over department discipline, reinstatement of fired officers, expunging of black marks from the disciplinary records of certain officers, payment of lost wages to plaintiffs who were suspended without pay or fired because of racism, and punitive damages and compensation.

The lawsuit names as its defendants Mayor Martin O'Malley, acting police Commissioner Leonard D. Hamm, former Police Commissioners Edward T. Norris and Thomas C. Frazier, Labor Commissioner Sean R. Malone and other city lawyers.

City Solicitor Ralph S. Tyler called the allegations "untrue" and said many - even if they were true - are barred by statutes of limitations.

"People who have serious issues to raise come in to present them, they don't issue press releases," he said. "What I know in the short time I've had to look at it is that a large number of plaintiffs are people who have had what we call 'troubled' histories in the Police Department."

In naming some former commissioners, the lawsuit's accusations reach back to 1994. The suit specifically excludes Clark and former Commissioner Ronald L. Daniel, both of whom served under O'Malley.

In alleging racism in the firing of Clark, the suit says that former Internal Affairs Chief Zeinab Rabold, a plaintiff and one of Clark's closest advisers, "discovered evidence that showed an effort by certain white members of the BPD to remove former Commissioner Clark." It also states that Daniel was dismissed in less than 60 days because he spoke out against racism in the department.

O'Malley fired Clark last month, saying domestic abuse allegations against the commissioner, though unsubstantiated, had eroded his leadership ability. Clark, who is not a plaintiff in the suit, has filed a separate action against O'Malley.

"That's meritless," Tyler said of the allegations about Clark's firing and racism. "That's a different wild theory than the one Clark puts forward in his own lawsuit."

City officials said last night that since O'Malley took office in 1999, the percentage of African-Americans has grown in several areas of the force. The number of sworn officers is up to 43 percent from 38 percent. The sergeants are now 42 percent black, compared with 25 percent five years ago, and the lieutenant ranks are 25 percent compared with 13 percent in 1999, according to a city spokesman.

The lawsuit, in describing the alleged hostile work environment, states that black officers have found dog feces wrapped in an African-American newspaper and placed on their desks, endured racial epithets, had hangman's nooses placed in their lockers and had zebra stripes painted on pictures of their mixed-race children.

There have been previous high-profile race relations troubles within the Baltimore Police Department, and the lawsuit contends the department did not make the appropriate fixes.

In 1996, the Baltimore Community Relations Commission found that black officers were more likely to be disciplined or fired than white officers.

In 1998, the City Council's Legislative Investigations Committee, headed by then-Councilman O'Malley, issued a report on "Internal Discrimination in the Baltimore City Police Department." The report followed several hearings on racial strife.

Also in 1998, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found that the department violated civil rights laws by more harshly punishing black officers and retaliating against those who complained.

In 2000, several black officers were given their jobs back in an effort to rectify inequities in punishment.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Sgt. Louis Hopson Jr., who was briefly fired but returned to work in 1999 after he won a court ruling that concluded the city erred when it fired him for perjury on the witness stand. He has denied that charge.

The lawsuit filed yesterday alleges, among other complaints, that white officers left a flier on his desk that stated "We hunt you out, N--, Spics and Jews."

Hopson filed four EEOC complaints. Those helped prompt his involuntary transfer to the Central Booking and Intake Facility, the suit states.

The remaining plaintiffs include a supervisor who challenged the city over his dismissal after he was caught at an underground strip show while on duty. The lawsuit says that he denied the allegations against him and received an unfair hearing.