Columbus, Ohio votes to pay $475,000 settlement to officer who says police force discriminates against its own

The Columbus City Council voted Monday to pay a $475,000 settlement to an African American policeman after the officer, a 28-year veteran, says he faced retaliation for reporting racism and other misconduct by a superior.

Karl Shaw is not the only officer who says he has experienced such treatment working in the Ohio capital. Mayor Andrew Ginther, through his spokeswoman, called racism in the department “systemic,” and three other officers — including Shaw’s old partner, who alleges he faced a death threat — have also filed discrimination lawsuits against the department.

“Black police officers who take an oath to protect the life and liberty of their communities far too often are muted, voiceless, subjugated and marginalized if they courageously speak their truth,” said Councilmember Shayla Favor. “This is a tragedy for our city. It is our duty to create a safe space for every resident who seeks justice and reform.”

As part of the settlement, which concedes no wrongdoing, Shaw is demanding the city make the sort of discrimination and retaliation that he experienced a fireable offense within the Columbus Division of Police. Shaw wouldn’t have accepted Monday’s payout without the provision, said his lawyer, who expects the deal to be approved based on comments by the mayor and council president. Several city officials have signed off on it, the draft legislation shows.

Whereas police departments have faced immense scrutiny, especially in recent months, over injustices doled out to residents, Shaw’s case provides a window into a phenomenon that draws far fewer headlines: Police discriminating against their own colleagues.

“He did this for younger officers, and he would like to see more black officers,” Shaw attorney Fred Gittes said of the suit. “He was helped by good White officers who take the responsibility of being truthful and standing up for the law seriously, but unfortunately the chain of command doesn’t take it seriously.”

Two police spokespeople did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment, nor did the city attorney or police union. Police Chief Thomas Quinlan did not reply to an email seeking answers about the lawsuits and allegations of racism.

Ginther would not comment on pending lawsuits, but he said racism has no place in Columbus.

“Officer Shaw went through the proper internal channels when the incident occurred, but was still the victim of retaliation. An extensive Internal Affairs Bureau investigation gave the offending officer a written reprimand,” the mayor’s statement said. “This case represents the status quo and the past. It cannot represent our future and underscores the need for civilian oversight and independent investigations.”

An operational review of the CDP found that 51% of officers had experienced discrimination at some point, a mayoral spokesman said, and the city has launched a commission to look at the division’s policies and procedures. A third-party review last year also found that residents felt police discrimination was a problem within Columbus’ communities and that most Black residents feel the CDP doesn’t take such complaints seriously.

“We know that systemic racism exists, not just in Columbus Division of Police but in every aspect of our community. Mayor Ginther is committed to rooting it out,” his statement said.

Sergeant used ‘N-word’ and ‘monkey,’ lawsuit claims

Shaw experienced discrimination soon after he joined the CDP in 1992, Gittes said. A Navy diver who competed on his college swim team, he was told he was unqualified to join the division’s dive team, the lawyer said. Shaw also felt he’d had his investigations unfairly scrutinized and requests for equipment denied because of his race, Gittes said.

The crux of his lawsuit stems from a late 2014 incident in which he sought a position in the narcotics bureau after it was announced his own unit was being disbanded, his lawsuit says.

Shaw had heard the White sergeant in charge of hiring the positions had a reputation for a “negative attitude about ‘black officers and African-Americans in general,'” the lawsuit says. He’d also made “violent racist threats” against Shaw’s former partner, officer Eric Cornett, and Shaw’s supervisor, according to the lawsuit.

Another officer alleged the sergeant “used the N-word and the terms ‘ape’ and ‘monkey’ in reference to them and said that if something was not done ‘about those two monkeys, he was going to take them out back and kill them,'” the lawsuit says.

Cornett, a master sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, told CNN he considered the sergeant’s threat so serious that he took a $70,000 pay cut and sold his house for $115,000 under market value so he could seek safer employment in Beaufort, South Carolina.

“We’re still terrified every single day,” said Cornett, who now lives in Texas. “Every single day, my wife knows she best carry that weapon when she leaves the house.”

Passed over for positions

Interviewed in December 2014, Shaw told internal affairs he was aware of the hiring sergeant’s reputation and had heard about his “racial jokes,” epithets and threats, according to the lawsuit.

When Shaw was passed over for the narcotics post — for a White officer with less seniority — then-Chief Kim Jacobs removed the White officer from the post and put a lieutenant in charge of filling it anew, the lawsuit says. Shaw was offered the narcotics job in February 2015, but before he could accept it, he learned the sergeant had found out about his internal affairs interview.

He further heard that, referring to Shaw and another Black officer as “the brothers,” the sergeant warned a colleague that Shaw and the other officer “better not take my job,” referring to the narcotics post, according to the lawsuit.

Fearing retribution, Shaw turned down the job. Running out of time for reassignment, he applied for a second narcotics position, but it was filled by a White officer with more seniority, the lawsuit says. Shaw learned later of more allegations against the sergeant, including that a Latino officer had accused him of menacingly gesturing toward his gun during a confrontation.

An internal affairs probe determined the sergeant had tried to dissuade Shaw and the other Black officer from taking the narcotics posts and that the sergeant “may or may not have been motivated by the fact that they are black,” the lawsuit says.

The sergeant, who was also the subject of an investigation for overtime abuse and mishandling CDP property, was terminated, the lawsuit says. For the race-based complaints, he received a written reprimand. He was reinstated after arbitration, the lawsuit says.

Shaw was later denied a freeway post because he was about to go on medical leave, when White officers “had previously had positions held for them pending such leave,” the lawsuit says. After filing a union grievance, he was temporarily reassigned, it says.

Attorney: Other Black officers won’t come forward

Gittes, Shaw’s attorney, says his client’s case is but a microcosm of CDP’s racist culture, both inside and outside the department. The attorney has been representing and suing the police for 45 years, he said, going back to a 1978 class action that found the CDP fostered a hostile work environment and discriminated in its promotions and assignments.

He’s spoken to six or seven other Black officers who wanted to come forward with Shaw, he said, but they backed off after he explained the possible blowback.

“I always tell people about ramifications. Why do you think they have anti-retaliation laws? Because it happens,” he said. “They were concerned for their families and their jobs to support their families.”

Gittes represents another Black officer who was fired after allegations of filing fraudulent time sheets. The accusations were unfounded, yet he was terminated when White officers had kept their jobs after similar allegations had been deemed legitimate, according to a federal lawsuit.

Also, Lt. Melissa McFadden, the highest ranking Black woman in the CDP, has filed a lawsuit and written a book called “Walking the Thin Black Line,” which chronicles her efforts to protect Columbus’ African American communities from injustice and police brutality while battling discrimination within the department herself.

“A lot of time we give police the pass. It’s such a strenuous job,” the 24-year veteran told CNN. “That’s nonsense. We should be held to a higher standard, and we should be held accountable. There’s no accountability. As long as there’s no accountability and it’s not coming out of our pockets personally … we don’t care.”

Lawyer predicts more settlements

CDP statistics show almost 55% of the department’s use-of-force incidents in 2018 targeted Black residents, as opposed to about 26% for Whites.

The city is 60% White. The CDP’s law enforcement personnel are 87% White, civilian personnel are 81% White and recruits are 79% White, a 2019 annual report says.

In 2015, the US Justice Department found that Columbus police used excessive force, made false arrests, lodged false charges and conducted unconstitutional searches, but it did not find the division had discriminated against residents based on race.

After Shaw and Cornett filed complaints, the Ohio Civil Rights Commission gave them the green light to sue, but the commission has received another 29 complaints against the CDP since January 2016, spokeswoman Mary Turocy said. Five remain open, one was withdrawn “without benefits,” one was closed because of lack of jurisdiction and 22 were closed after a finding of no probable cause, she said.

Gittes predicts more settlements in Columbus’ future. Shaw’s attorney says the more important matter is the city’s agreement to take these sorts of accusations more seriously going forward.

“Karl really believes in police work, and he believes people of color should be involved in law enforcement,” Gittes said. “The department and command structure makes that extraordinarily difficult because they don’t take racism seriously.”