Assistant police chief sues city

Jul. 29, 2014 @ 08:25 PM

A Durham Police Department assistant chief filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the city late Tuesday afternoon, contending he was denied a promotion because he’d complained about the department’s treatment of black officers.

The assistant chief, Winslow Forbes, supervises the work of patrol officers and detectives assigned to the department’s two patrol districts that cover south and southwest Durham.

His lawsuit, filed in state court by lawyer Caitlyn Thomson, echoes claims he raised last year in a complaint to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Forbes alleges he was passed over early in 2013 for a deputy chief’s slot for administrative affairs that went to a more junior and less-qualified colleague, Anthony Marsh, who had “never expressed any concern about race discrimination” by Police Chief Jose Lopez.

He is seeking damages that would cost the city more than $10,000. The suit stopped short of asking that a judge order city officials to promote him, but as is standard said Forbes is open to receiving any “further relief as may be just, proper and necessary.”

Forbes essentially went public with his grievances last summer, when Thomson released the details of the EEOC complaint.

The lawsuit claims Forbes’ troubles began in 2011 when he went to bat for a black woman in the department who’d been passed over for a promotion from lieutenant to captain.

The lieutenant – who’s since made captain – wanted to attend a special training program to better her chances the second time around. But Forbes alleges he had to sponsor her in place of one of his own subordinates because Lopez, former Deputy Chief Steve Mihaich and former Assistant Chief Lee Russ all were dubious about sending her through the program.

They objected to her “manner of speaking,” specifically her use of “African-American vernacular English” in some situations, the suit alleges.

Forbes said he spoke to Lopez again about discrimination in 2012 after he was passed over for a promotion to deputy chief that went instead to Larry Smith, the Police Department’s current deputy for operations.

He didn’t object to the choice of Smith, a member of the same 1988 rookie class as Forbes and someone he thought was “well qualified” for a No. 2 posting in the department.

But Forbes alleges he told Lopez he thought the chief “had consistently promoted non-black officers over equally or better-qualified black officers.”

Lopez objected, and afterwards “began treating [Forbes] differently than similarly situated white colleagues,” the suit alleges.

The filing in addition to targeting the city also named Lopez and City Manager Tom Bonfield as defendants.

Lopez’s inclusion came because he “knew or should have known that race discrimination and retaliation” are improper under federal statute and the U.S. Constitution, the suit says.

Bonfield was included for similar reasons, in part because he has the “ultimate authority” under state law to override the chief’s promotion decisions.

The suit also alleges that Bonfield helped cover up a “racially offensive” joke supposedly made by Lopez that targeted a Durham defense lawyer, David Hall.

Hall was among a number of blacks victimized by a spate of shootings last year. Forbes alleges that Lopez in a meeting with commanders and the department’s public-relations staff quipped that the lawyer “deserved to be shot because he was a public defender.”

The allegation, aired in last year’s EEOC complaint, led to an apology by Lopez but a denial from the chief that he remembered making the quip.

Bonfield told reporters at the same news conference that his own review had turned up “a variety of recollections about what was said,” none that were “thoroughly consistent with the allegation.”

Forbes and Thomson allege that “one or more” of the people present for the meeting with the chief told officials Lopez made the remark, and that “at least one” had told them it was “exactly what Chief Lopez had said.”

That means “Bonfield knowingly made a false statement for the purpose of concealing evidence of racial animus by” Lopez, the suit alleges.

The EEOC complaint surfaced last year as a coalition of local groups was separately beginning to raise questions about racial profiling in the department and the oversight of the department’s internal-affairs unit that investigates misconduct complaints.

Tuesday’s filing raised new questions on the internal-affairs front, though perhaps not in the way Forbes intended.

He alleges Lopez had treated him differently than white commanders by denying him a chance to review the findings of an internal-affairs investigation of one of his subordinates.

But Forbes also said he’d asked that internal affairs assign “a different person” to conduct the investigation. The target of the probe was a black lieutenant, and the investigator was a white sergeant the lieutenant, a man, believed had treated him unfairly in another matter, the suit alleges.

Internal affairs is supposed to operate independently of the operations and administrative sides of the Police Department.

Forbes alleges normal practice would have been to give him the administrative affairs post, given that he and Smith had both been rated as “above average” by reviewers when they applied the year before to be operations deputy.

Promotions for command positions through the rank of lieutenant are driven by rankings on “assessment centers” that include written exams, role-plays and other forms of testing.

Department policy, however, makes it clear that promotions for the ranks of captain and above are at the discretion of the chief and involve “a non-competitive selection process.”