Baltimore County police said to harass black officers

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Charles J. Jackson says he was investigated on departmental charges 26 times during his 13-year career as a Baltimore County police officer.

"Now, that many charges means one of two things," says Mr. Jackson. "Either I was a pretty poor excuse for a police officer or I'm a victim of harassment on the part of my supervisors."

Baltimore County alleges that Mr. Jackson was not a good officer. The department fired him in April for carrying his service revolver after his police powers had been suspended, for driving a car without a valid registration, and for disobeying orders.

But Mr. Jackson claims his experience was part of a pattern of harassment against black police officers in the county.

When he decided to go public, I looked into his story and interviewed more than two dozen other black officers in Baltimore County. They all agree with him.

But the police department strongly denies any ill-treatment of black officers. "There is zero tolerance for discrimination within this department," says Chief Cornelius Behan.

Mr. Jackson says his trouble began in 1986 when he filed a complaint against a white supervisor who had made a derogatory remark about his "fade" haircut.

"After that, they would come up with all sorts of stuff, ridiculous stuff, trumped-up stuff -- anything to keep me on the run and off-balance," claims Mr. Jackson, who also received 15 letters of commendation, and shared a unit citation, during his career.

Mr. Jackson's records show he was charged with misconduct for "winking, smiling and waving" at a citizen, causing "discomfort and concern." The citizen was the girlfriend of one of his white colleagues. Mr. Jackson was found not guilty.

The dispute over his haircut led to several charges of criminal misconduct and conducting an illegal wiretap, because he attempted to record his supervisor's remarks. A trial board eventually found him guilty of bringing discredit to another member of the department.

Several times, Mr. Jackson was found guilty of insubordination, failure to obey orders and neglect of duty, all for procedural mistakes that he claims are often forgiven when made by white officers.

He plans to appeal his firing and has filed a complaint against the department with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

"The bottom line is, there are some officers and some supervisors on the force who do not want [blacks] out there and will do anything they can to sabotage our career," claims Mr. Jackson.

Many other black officers agree. They say blacks are more likely to be charged with departmental infractions than their white counterparts, more likely to be found guilty, and when convicted receive harsher punishment.

In recent years, similar complaints have been made about the treatment of blacks on the Maryland State Police and Baltimore City police force -- and against two federal law-enforcement agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

National phenomenon

"This is not a local problem, it is a national phenomenon," says Ronald E. Hampton, executive director of the National Black Police Association. "There are on-going suits against over 100 police departments, right now. Well over a dozen major departments are still operating under consent decrees. And, in a substantial number of departments, the officers feel the oppression but have not reached the point where they organize and fight back.

"And in each of these cases," continues Mr. Hampton, "the complaints have centered around four issues: promotions, hiring, assignments and discipline. African American officers are getting hammered all over the country."

The complaints raise a key question about the often-strained relationship between police departments and the black communities they serve. If departments in general -- and white officers in particular -- have trouble treating black officers fairly, what does that say about the way civilians are treated?

"You're asking if it spills over onto the streets? Of course it does," says Mr. Hampton. "In fact, the situation may be getting worse. It all ties in with this notion of the black male, 20 to 25 years, as the universal criminal."

Black officers in Baltimore County told me that racial tension in the department seems to be getting worse, though modest improvements have been made in minority recruitment and promotions.

Blacks account for 8 percent of the department's 1,393 sworn personnel. As for black commanders, there are: one captain, two lieutenants, a sergeant and two corporals.

In all, I interviewed 26 of the 118 black officers on the force. All 26 said they must contend with an atmosphere of racism and discrimination within the department. Most did not want their names used.

"There were very few problems at the beginning of my career," said an 18-year veteran and past president of the Blue Guardians, an organization of black county officers. "But there are a lot of problems now. It seems as though we weren't considered a threat when there were just a handful of us. Now there's a backlash."

Common complaints I heard: Black officers often receive the least-popular assignments, must contend with racial epithets from their colleagues, and often receive unfavorable performance ratings. These ratings are based on subjective decisions that are difficult to challenge.

Some are bitter

Some blacks are openly bitter about the situation. Officer Angie Murphy is one of them. "In one word: [some white officers] are racist. There's no other way of putting it," says Officer Murphy, a five-year veteran currently on informal suspension, with pay, pending an investigation into a charge of making inappropriate remarks to a supervisor.

"I keep thinking back to what an instructor told me during the training academy," says Officer Murphy. "He said, 'The law says we've got to hire you, but it doesn't say we can't fire you.' Wherever we go, whatever we do, we're just up the creek. We're marked. We're targets. We have to deal with people on the outside shooting at us, and people on the inside, plotting against us."

Officer Murphy is one of the few officers who did not mind being named in this column. Last year, she raised similar charges against the department in a signed article in the Baltimore Times. Two years ago, she called publicly for an investigation by the county branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"My career is a glass box," she says defiantly. "I'm not afraid of them. What can they do to me they haven't done already?"

10 investigations

Officer Murphy says she has been the subject of at least 10 departmental investigations during her career, mostly for charges of insubordination or misconduct. She alleges that racial harassment began after she filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission two years ago about a supervisor. The case is still pending.

Racism often surfaces in the guise of humor, says Officer Murphy.

"When I started wearing braids, [some white colleagues] just went off. I was called things like 'Jamaican' and 'Buckwheat.' They accused me of being a black militant.

"Once, I came in wearing a gold chain and an officer said, 'I thought you people didn't like chains anymore.' They claim they're just joking, but these are jokes with a message. These are jokes that are meant to hurt. This is the type of pettiness black officers have to put up with."

Such complaints upset Chief Behan. He says the department has acted aggressively to insure that everyone is treated fairly.

"I have put in place every avenue of relief that we could possibly have," he says firmly. "The fact is, the disciplinary process is predominantly against whites. More whites than blacks have been terminated. We go after every complaint we receive and when we find that the complaint is justified, we clobber the offender.

"Unfortunately," he continues, "the perception becomes the reality. When you have minorities in any large organization, they are going to feel put upon. That's why I take this issue so seriously. It is an important morale issue."

Chief Behan listed the avenues he has established allowing minority officers to pursue grievances:

* A Fair Practices Committee to review any departmental policy.

* A liaison officer for blacks and one for women. Both officers have the power to report problems and complaints directly to the chief.

Moreover, he says, he has insisted on in-service training about cultural diversity for the entire department and raises the issue regularly when he addresses members at training sessions and seminars.

And the chief points out that in 1987 and 1992, the department conducted a survey of the racial attitudes of its personnel, to get a handle on any internal problems.

"My biggest complaint is officers who don't complain," says Chief Behan. "One thing the survey found was a high percentage of blacks and women who do not and would not report problems to their supervisors. That is disturbing because when complaints are brought to our attention, we investigate them promptly and punish them severely."

Many don't complain

"That's true -- a lot of blacks don't complain and it is a problem," agrees Detective David Bird, the black officer appointed by Chief Behan to be his liaison with blacks.

Detective Bird says the actions of a few white supervisors and officers become magnified into a general perception of unfair treatment in the minds of black officers.

"But whether there is discrimination or not, the perception is important," says Detective Bird. "The perception makes it real in the mind of the individual.

"The majority of the officers just want it stopped," he says. "They don't want any retaliation, they don't want any restitution.

"They just want to be able to wear the blue uniform and do their jobs."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
23°