Officer accuses La Crosse Police Department of racial harassment, retaliation

Officer accuses La Crosse Police Department of racial harassment, retaliation

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This story contains racial slurs that readers may find offensive.

A La Crosse police officer claims in state and federal complaints filed against his department that he suffered ongoing racial harassment by officers and supervisors and then retaliation for reporting the conduct.

Anthony Clark, a third-shift patrol officer since 2011 who is black, has been called “white on the inside” and asked by a colleague whether he used permanent marker for his “skin pigmentation,” while white officers and supervisors used the term “jigaboo” to describe black officers, according to his complaint.

The department failed to address the harassment and responded to Clark’s internal complaints with “a campaign of egregious retaliation” by partnering him with the “main perpetrator” of the harassment, issuing him an unwarranted reprimand and investigating him, the complaint states.

A three-month investigation launched in April by city Human Resources Director Wendy Oestreich found some claims unsubstantiated, while others did not rise to racial harassment or retaliation. She recommended three officers face discipline but cleared department members of any serious wrongdoing.

To her knowledge, Oestreich said, Clark’s is the first racial harassment case brought against the city by an employee.

“We believe we conducted a thorough investigation done in an unbiased manner,” she said Thursday.

While the city was investigating, Clark on April 17 filed a formal complaint with the state Department of Workforce Development Equal Rights Division arguing the department violated the Fair Employment Law.

He also filed identical complaints with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, claiming a violation of the federal Civil Rights Act.

The state agency investigates first.

If it finds the department is at fault, Clark could be awarded for lost training opportunities and other fees.

Clark’s lawyer, Jim Birnbaum, said the city tries to argue that Clark’s complaints don’t have merit while at the same time recommending discipline against three officers.

“Did they really conclude that this officer is making it up?” he asked.

The officer’s complaint

Clark argues in a three-page complaint that racial harassment stretches back to April 2013, but that document, released by the state, does not specify dates or identify other officers or supervisors by name.

The officer notified La Crosse Police Chief Ron Tischer by e-mail April 11, 2013, that he discovered a banana left in his department locker but was not interviewed during that investigation, which found the conduct couldn’t be substantiated, according to his complaint.

Clark argues the department denied him training opportunities, a community policing position and a spot of the department’s Emergency Response Team.

He accuses supervisors of failing to “address, much less ensure, that the harassment ceased” and of retaliation when they warned him not to report the harassment to the Human Resources Department, according to the complaint.

Clark hired Birnbaum, a La Crosse attorney, who on March 18 brought Clark’s allegations to the chief. The department turned over the complaint to the human resources department that day.

It was in the wake of the complaint that the department in April partnered Clark with the “main perpetrator of the harassment,” according to his complaint.

A sergeant reprimanded Clark on April 10 for having a dirty squad car. Birnbaum contends it was “undisputed” that white officers were responsible for the mess. They were not disciplined, Birnbaum stated.

Birnbaum ended an April 17 meeting with Oestreich after she answered his three questions designed to “gauge the sincerity and non-retaliatory intent of your ‘investigation,’” he wrote in a letter to the human resources director.

Oestreich said she was aware that Clark was paired with one of his harassers, that she met with a black officer from another agency and that she knew Clark was issued unwarranted discipline, Birnbaum stated.

Birnbaum told Oestreich that Clark wouldn’t meet with her again.

“To be frank, you appear to be either incapable of conducting a competent investigation in this matter, or you have wholly failed at concealing the city’s retaliatory campaign against officer Clark,” Birnbaum wrote to Oestreich.

Birnbaum refused to answer the city’s follow-up questions on the beat assignment, Oestreich wrote in a response letter. She called the tone of his letter “as disappointing as it was disrespectful” and inaccurate.

Clark’s complaint accuses Oestreich and a police lieutenant looking into his case of conducting an investigation into Clark.

According to the complaint, they told a black officer from a neighboring agency that Clark filed a harassment complaint only because he is “concerned about his image” and instructed her “not to tell anyone about this conversation” to “ensure the integrity of the La Crosse Police Department.”

City investigates

A 91-page report prepared by the city shows Oestreich and a police lieutenant assisting the investigation interviewed 25 people, 23 of them department members, reviewed city policies, e-mails and department records when looking into Clark’s complaints.

Oestreich recommended in June at the end of the three-month investigation in a memo to the chief that department members undergo diversity and anti-harassment training, and revisit a city policy that bans conduct creating a hostile work environment.

She also found Tischer should discipline a sergeant and two officers for “insensitive, isolated comments.”

“We have implemented or are in the process of implementing all the recommendations,” the chief stated Thursday.

In a summary of the case presented to Tischer, Oestreich listed 11 racial harassment claims made by Clark and one retaliation claim.

Among her findings:

  • The investigation did not show a banana found atop Clark’s duty bag in a storage locker in April 2013 was a racially motivated prank. Clark and other officers interviewed stated it could have been a coincidence. The department has since installed a surveillance camera to monitor the lockers. In an April 11, 2013, e-mail to the chief, Clark stated he was “shocked and saddened” when he discovered the banana, but preferred Tischer didn’t address the department. Tischer in a reply e-mail said the incident made him “sick to my stomach” and that he won’t tolerate racism in the department. “I hope that this was a coincidence, but if it wasn’t we need to take care of it. We can’t allow this to happen,” the chief wrote.
  • A sergeant who said “that’s a shocker” when describing a black suspect during line-up in 2011 immediately apologized to Clark, who did not report his concern about the statement until the investigation.
  • There is no indication the department unfairly denied Clark training opportunities. Officers are selected based on funding, staffing, overtime, qualifications and need for the training.
  • Clark argued a captain retaliated against him by not selecting him for the Emergency Response Team because he told the captain an internal investigation launched after a citizen said Clark told her she was “acting like a bitch” was “bull----.” The investigation found no evidence to support the retaliation claim and that several team members were concerned about appointing Clark to the team. Team members have an average of 11 years of service.
  • An officer confirmed he called Clark a “house dog,” a derogatory term, as a joke after a suspect used it to describe Clark. Two officers heard Clark call himself a “house dog.”
  • An officer confirmed he said “jigaboo” but in reference to not wanting to listen to rap music. “Although this was said out of ignorance, this is certainly not acceptable. Ignorance is not an excuse. Education is required,” Oestreich wrote.
  • A black suspect told Clark that he “might be black on the outside but really white on the inside.” An officer said he repeated the statement to Clark several times but that Clark also used the same description about himself. “This statement is certainly not in good taste and is unprofessional, regardless of who is making the statement,” Oestreich wrote.
  • An officer found Clark repairing his duty belt with a black marker. He asked Clark if he had a skin pigmentation problem because he knew a military member who colored a light hair patch with black shoe polish. The officer did not realize the comment was offensive and the investigation found it was an isolated incident.
  • The investigation also found the department did not retaliate against Clark when a supervisor switched officer beat assignments. On March 31 and April 2, a new officer and her training officer were assigned to patrol an area adjacent to Clark’s assignment to give the newer officer additional experience patrolling that area of the city. Clark did not raise an immediate concern about the adjustment.
  • A sergeant issued Clark a supervisory note on April 10 after an officer found sunflower seeds, a soda can and vomit in the squad car he used for his April 2-3 shift. Clark did not report the vomit when he checked his car at the beginning of the shift. The supervisor asked Clark to ensure his squad is clean at the end of his shift.
  • Oestreich told Tischer to discipline officers responsible for the “that’s a shocker,” “jigaboo” and skin pigmentation comments.

Legal response

The department’s Milwaukee attorney wrote in a letter to the state Department of Workforce Development that the city denies all of Clark’s discrimination claims.

Clark had 300 days by state statute to report racial harassment, disqualifying any allegations made prior to June 25, 2013. Only the officer’s comment about Clark’s skin pigmentation could qualify, but it does not rise to racial harassment, the department’s attorney argues.

All other racial allegations aren’t supported by fact, with Oestreich finding there wasn’t enough information to support the claims, that they were ignorant comments or inappropriate jokes Clark participated in, according to the attorneys.

The attorney also disputes Clark’s retaliation claims, citing a 23-page internal report and recommendations for discipline that refute his argument that the city didn’t investigate his complaints. He was not unfairly reprimanded for a dirty squad car; it’s department policy that officers inspect cars at the end of a shift. Finally, he was not partnered with the “main perpetrator,” who was assigned to an adjoining beat to give another officer more experience.

“The city of La Crosse has taken officer Clark’s claims of racial harassment and retaliation very seriously. The city thoroughly investigated each and every allegation,” according to the attorney. “While concluding that the action/comments did not rise to the level of racial harassment and the facts did not support the claim of retaliation, affirmative recommendations were made.”

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