African-American Police Officers File Lawsuit Against Brookline

Employment, Police Accountability, Racial Justice

African-American Police Officers File Lawsuit Against Brookline 
Allege Hostile Work Environment, Racial Slurs

June 20, 2016 — Two African-American police officers filed a lawsuit today against the Town of Brookline in Massachusetts Superior Court, alleging racial discrimination in employment. In their complaint, Officers Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun cite a range of conduct that they say has created a hostile work environment at the Brookline Police Department, including racial slurs by fellow officers, differential treatment based on race, and a refusal of town officials to adequately investigate their charges of racial discrimination.

“Officer Zerai-Misgun and I have together given over 20 years of service to the Town of Brookline,” said Officer Pilot. “We have raised issues of racially discriminatory treatment to town officials on many occasions, but nothing has been done to remedy the situation. We are now seeking outside intervention to help bring about change.” The officers are represented in their complaint by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice and Fair Work, P.C.  

In February 2016, they filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) and today removed the case to court.Officer Zerai-Misgun stated: “There is a culture at Brookline Police Department, which is reinforced by the Chief and other town officials, that employees should not complain about racial discrimination; that when such complaints are made, they are swept under the rug; and that individuals who complain about racial discrimination are ostracized and subjected to retaliation.” He noted that town officials have failed to act on the officers’ charges of discrimination even though the town’s own Commission for Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations has found that there is a “culture of institutional racism.” Brookline residents have also turned out in large numbers to public hearings to demand that town officials address the problem.

Among other incidents, the officers allege:

  • A sergeant told Officer Pilot to “do some n***** jumping jacks” for him.
  • A lieutenant, upon seeing Officer Zerai-Misgun in an unmarked police cruiser, stated in front of several other officers: “What the f***?  Who would put a black man behind one of those?”
  • An officer stated to Officer Zerai-Misgun, “I can’t believe a black guy without a college degree scored higher than me on the exam.”
  • Other officers referred to Officer Zerai-Misgun as an “FI” when he was in plainclothes, which stands for “Field Interview” or “Field Investigation” and means a suspicious individual who should be stopped and questioned.
  • Another officer stated to Officer Zerai-Misgun: “I almost ran you over – I can’t see you when it’s dark unless your eyes are open.”

Hillary Schwab of Fair Work, P.C., one of the attorneys for the officers, noted that the work environment in a police department is particularly critical. “Officers frequently depend on other officers for back-up, including in dangerous situations. Officers carry firearms, and the potential for danger is a constant part of the job. Conduct by colleagues and superior officers that shows a lack of respect, particularly when it is racially discriminatory, is therefore not only offensive but fosters a work environment that is unsafe.” She added that an investigator retained by the Town to investigate the Department’s racial climate recently confirmed a culture in which racial remarks are made; that some senior officers are perceived to have “crossed the line and used the N-word”; that “there may be some senior officers who went beyond [racial] bantering”; and that minority officers reported the existence of an “Old Boy Irish Network” that encouraged nepotism.

Oren Sellstrom, Litigation Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, another of the attorneys representing the officers, added that “the lack of diversity in the Brookline police force only exacerbates the problem.” He noted that of the approximately 130 police officers employed by the town, only approximately 6 are African-American, and all of the supervisory officers are white. He added that recent statistics also show that Brookline police are ten times more likely to stop African-American individuals compared to their representation in the Brookline population.

The complaint filed today asks for damages for the two officers as well as for injunctive relief ordering the town to take affirmative steps to remedy the hostile work environment.

This lawsuit was featured in the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, the Brookline Patch, and WHDH.