A former Orting police officer filed a complaint Thursday against the city in federal court, alleging he was the victim of racial discrimination, retaliation and defamation.
The ex-officer, Gerry Pickens, is seeking $5 million in damages.
He filed the civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Tacoma more than five months after demanding a $5 million settlement from Orting following his firing.
Pickens, Orting’s first black officer, was dismissed in September, five days before his yearlong probationary period ended. He has said Police Chief Bill Drake vaguely cited “unsatisfactory work” as the reason for his firing.
The city has said Pickens’ unprofessional conduct in several incidents showed he was unfit for permanent employment.
Pickens’ attorney, Beverly Grant, said in a statement Thursday that her client would have satisfied probation if not for the “racial animus” of Drake. She also said subsequent actions by the chief and the city have “blacklisted” the officer from future law enforcement jobs.
“It was Officer Pickens’ lifelong dream to become a police officer,” according to the statement, which also contended the chief’s “untruthful” references to prospective employers “deliberately hindered” Pickens’ ability to secure a job as a police officer elsewhere.
City Administrator Mark Bethune said in a statement Thursday that Pickens’ firing was “fully justified” and the allegations in the lawsuit are “unfounded and untrue and the city will defend itself vigorously in court.”
“During his more than seven years as our chief, Chief Drake has shown high moral and ethical character as a person and a law enforcement officer,” Bethune wrote. He told The News Tribune it’s not the city’s policy to have individual defendants, such as Drake, respond.
Orting hired Pickens in September 2013 after he resigned from the Atlanta Police Department.
His personnel file from that job, obtained by The News Tribune, shows several performance evaluations that rated his quality of work above average. One rated him “exceptional” for honesty and integrity.
After he was fired in Orting, Pickens filed two complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging racial discrimination and retaliation.
In its EEOC response, the city cited several reasons for firing Pickens.
It alleged, among other accusations, that he improperly completed various reports, offered delayed response to a high-risk traffic stop, made a personal trip to his home on duty and failed to help an officer in a physical altercation.
The city also cited a “suspicious,” on-duty encounter between Pickens and a woman in the Orting High School parking lot and an investigation for “theft of service” at a local gym.
There was no indication from the city that the parking lot incident was formally investigated, and the gym accusation was not sustained.
Many of the incidents mentioned in the city’s response to the EEOC complaint lack details, such as exact dates, and only one is supported by written documentation. For some accusations, the response doesn’t indicate whether Pickens was given a verbal or written warning.
The lawsuit filed Thursday underscores the lack of details, and alleges the chief didn’t conduct a thorough or fair investigation of the claims. “None of these allegations were true or supported by any credible evidence,” it states.
The lawsuit outlines a long list of other allegations. For example, in the meeting terminating Pickens’ employment, the lawsuit states, Drake said the officer didn’t “fit the mold of the department.”
Pickens says the “chief was on record or often told others that he was not in favor of diversification especially if it meant hiring black males.”
He alleges he was subjected to an “ongoing barrage of racism” by Drake that included remarks, such as “trouble follows blacks,” and racial slurs used to describe the black officer.
The suit alleges Drake repeatedly told Pickens, “You might want to consider finding another police department to work for,” citing the prevalence of Ku Klux Klansmen living in the area.
Pickens lodged complaints with Mayor Joachim Pestinger about the comments, but says no corrective action was taken. He also alleges the work environment was increasingly tense for him after he complained to the mayor about his treatment.
Despite “favorable recommendations” from Pickens’ previous employer, the lawsuit contends he was “unfairly subjected to more scrutiny than Caucasian officers.” Pickens also says he was never given a performance evaluation before his firing. A records request by The News Tribune this year yielded no evaluations because the city waits until after a probationary period to evaluate employee performance.
The lawsuit also notes Pickens is in good standing with the state, because there are no documented cases of misconduct against him.
The lawsuit also cites an incident of vandalism that Pickens has called a hate crime. In January, he awoke at his home to find his SUV spray-painted with a racial slur on one side and a threat on the other. It read “sue cheif (sic) and pay.”
“There has been no investigation on this matter and no one has been arrested,” the lawsuit states. “Plaintiff is unaware as to who was responsible for this incident.”