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Police bias case drags on

The Baltimore Sun

Sgt. Louis H. Hopson Jr. first got in trouble in 1982.

He was a rookie police officer then, and the Baltimore Police Department accused him of lying about how he obtained a search warrant, and he was stripped of 15 vacation days.

In 1996, he testified on behalf of a colleague accused of rape but refused to say under oath that he had made a false report 14 years earlier. He was administratively charged with perjury and fired.

A city Circuit Court judge reversed the termination, and Hopson is back on the force, working at the juvenile booking center, where he earned $90,000 in salary last year, but is barred from making arrests and testifying in court.

He tells anyone who will listen that black officers are punished more harshly than their white counterparts, and he has sued the Police Department in an effort to prove it.

His battle has become an epic within the city police force, his name synonymous with long-standing complaints of racism.

Hopson is the lead plaintiff in a multiparty federal discrimination lawsuit that he hopes will become certified as a class action. He filed the case in 2004, and it now includes 16 plaintiffs and 303 docket entries.

The parties are bickering over basic parts of discovery and have generated enough paper to fill more than a dozen brown accordion files in the court clerk's office. The city has spent $800,000 defending the case, and last month the city Law Department secured an additional $550,000.

"This police department has had decade after decade of racism," said Peter D. Isakoff, a partner at the Washington law firm Weil, Gotshal & Manges, which took on Hopson's discrimination case for free. "They do it more subtly through the disciplinary process.

"This had been a long, arduous process to say the least. The expense of this can be laid totally at the city's doorstep. They have made this as difficult and time-consuming as possible."

At issue now is a battle over internal affairs records dating to 1992, which show how discipline was handed out for similar offenses by race.

Isakoff said of the delays in litigation, "I've never had this experience in my professional career."

George A. Nilson, the city solicitor, acknowledged that his lawyers have not always been as prepared as they should be in court and said that he is now personally involved in the case. (Of a particularly contentious hearing in December during which the frustrated judge ordered the city to quickly produce information Nilson said, "We got nailed.")

The city needs to spend the money pulling old e-mails and electronic data, hiring paralegals to do data entry and an outside lawyer to work exclusively on the case. Last week, a city attorney sent a new batch of internal affairs records to Hopson's lawyers, but it is unclear whether that includes everything Hopson's attorneys want.

Experts say it is not unusual for discrimination cases with the potential to become class action lawsuits to drag on for years with little progress as attorneys try to establish the possibility of widespread discrimination - often by relying on databases.

Michael Foreman, deputy director of legal programs for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said the statistical expertise needed to pull the data and make sense of it costs time and money.

"There is usually an amount of discovery solely on the issue of 'Is this appropriate for a class action?' " Foreman said. "All these cases are driven heavily by expert testimony. The experts would have to review all that data."

The committee is affiliated with the Washington Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs, whose attorneys are part of the team representing the plaintiffs.

Nilson said there is another concern. Historically, he said, the city lawyers didn't trust Hopson and therefore didn't want to give his attorneys access to internal investigative material about police officers without masking the identities of the officers.

"Louis Hopson, who is the lead plaintiff and was the most active plaintiff, rightly or wrongly was believed to be a guy who has never met a leak he couldn't participate in," Nilson said.

"He would pick up the telephone and call a reporter at the drop of the hat if he had anything that he thought was the least bit interesting at the Police Department. Nobody thought they could legitimately trust Hopson with anything."

Hopson made a name for himself though his activism. Over the years, he has spoken up loudly about his concerns, and powerful people noticed. He has led rallies in front of City Hall.

Gov. Martin O'Malley, when he was a member of the City Council, was among the first to raise the issue of disparate discipline, seizing on an issue that made headlines.

O'Malley read a report published by former city police Officer Donald Reid, which said that of 139 officers fired over a 10-year span starting in 1985, 99 were black and 37 were white.

He directed his committee to investigate the claim, and Hopson testified at two City Council hearings in 1997. Thomas C. Frazier, the police commissioner, conceded there were disparities in the way black and white officers are treated.

"The irony is that this case started with Councilman Martin O'Malley and the Reid report, which was his thing," Nilson said. "The city has brought it on itself."

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission listened, too, and, after Hopson filed a complaint, it ordered the department to rehire all black officers who had been fired during a six-year period. In 1998, the EEOC concluded that the police force had violated civil rights laws by punishing black officers more harshly than white officers.

Hopson appeared at news conferences denouncing the department and spoke out against the department at a funeral for a teenager killed by police, saying he was speaking on behalf of the O'Malley for Mayor campaign, The Sun reported. O'Malley denied that assertion.

As mayor, O'Malley tried to address the problem, in part by increasing the number of black officers in midlevel ranks, supervisory positions that are often the first to hear discrimination complaints.

O'Malley declined to be interviewed, but a spokesman released a statement saying that the governor has always fought racial discrimination and that disciplinary and adjudicatory processes were changed under his tenure at City Hall.

But questions about disparate treatment still swirl around the department. This spring, a black officer who is suing the city for defamation was charged internally with raping a woman at the Southwest District station, even though he was on vacation when the rape is said to have occurred. Those charges were later amended.

Another black supervisor alleged in an EEOC complaint that his boss had ordered him to watch Ku Klux Klan videos.

"I'm not saying that every discipline proceeding has the right outcome or there isn't an instance in the corners or bowels of the Police Department that there isn't some kind of discrimination," Nilson said. "But I trust [Police Commissioner Frederick] Bealefeld totally on this subject, and I think I trust that all of the command people are doing the right thing."

The Vanguard Justice Society, an organization that represents black police officers, says trust in the top command isn't enough.

"You may have one person in charge who is trying to do the right thing," said Lt. Leonard A Willis Jr., president of the organization, which represents about 1,000 current and retired officers. "You still have a lot of people in supervision who might not think the same way. ... That whole internal investigative process has to be looked at and revamped."

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