Orting’s first black police officer says he was fired due to racism; city cites performance problems

A former Orting police officer is demanding $5 million from the city and threatening a workplace discrimination lawsuit over claims he was denied permanent employment because of his race.

Gerry Pickens was fired in September, five days before completing his yearlong probation period. He told The News Tribune that Police Chief Bill Drake cited “unsatisfactory work” as the reason for his firing.

“He said, ‘I don’t need to further explain anything to you,’” Pickens said, adding that he was let go without warning while all the other officers were in the building. “It was almost like a walk of shame.”

But in a formal response to the claims, the city says Pickens’ unprofessional conduct in several incidents showed he wasn’t fit for permanent employment. The former officer says the city exaggerated some of those claims and fabricated others after his allegations of racism surfaced.

Pickens says he was also the victim of a recent hate crime — a racial slur and other graffiti spray-painted on his personal vehicle — that he believes is related to his dispute with the city.

In a six-page letter obtained by The News Tribune, Pickens’ attorney, Beverly Grant, accuses Drake of making “racist and defamatory statements” about her client, who she and the city say is Orting’s first black police officer.

The letter states that Drake has “slandered” Pickens to other prospective employers and “prevented him from future employment as a police officer.”

It also details alleged inconsistencies between Pickens’ treatment and that of his white colleagues in the small police force in the east Pierce County city of 7,000 people. The city employs 10 patrol officers in addition to the chief.

Drake told The News Tribune that he couldn’t comment due to possible legal action.

Orting City Administrator Mark Bethune also said he couldn’t comment, but said he can’t recall any instances in which the city has faced allegations of racism.

Bethune added that he has “100 percent confidence” in the police chief.

“I’ve never heard him make a disparaging remark about anybody,” Bethune said. “He would not tolerate racism in the department.”

Pickens filed formal complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shortly after he was fired.

He has not yet filed a lawsuit against the city. He said the city has until April to respond to his tort claim. His attorney stated her letter is “a good faith offer to resolve our differences without the necessity of filing a lawsuit.”

She wrote that Pickens, 27, was at least 28 years from retirement and estimated his firing amounts to a loss of about $2.8 million in future income.

Orting Mayor Joachim Pestinger issued a statement Tuesday that commended Drake as an “exemplary police chief.” Pestinger said the city is “cooperating fully” with the EEOC to look into Pickens’ “unfounded” allegations.

The former officer, an Emerald Ridge High School graduate, grew up in the Puyallup Valley. He was hired by Orting in 2013 after resigning from the Atlanta Police Department. He had worked in Georgia since August 2011.

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 Pickens “exceptional” for honesty and integrity.

His Orting personnel file, also obtained by the newspaper, doesn’t include evaluations or documents on his job performance. Bethune said the city waits until the end of probationary employees’ terms to evaluate them.

Still, the city’s response to the EEOC complaint lists several issues that it says led to Pickens’ firing.

The city alleges the officer 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 assist an officer in a physical altercation, among other accusations.

The city also stated that Pickens was observed in a “suspicious” situation with a woman in the Orting High School parking lot while on duty and was investigated for “theft of service” for allegedly using a local gym twice without a membership.

The city’s EEOC response doesn’t indicate that the parking lot incident was formally investigated. The gym accusation was not sustained.

Pickens called the city’s accusations “mind-blowing,” especially the parking lot and gym allegations. He said he was “community policing” both times — chatting with his wife’s friend in the former incident and counseling a student athlete who wanted to learn more about police work in the second incident.

As for the incomplete reports, Pickens noted he was working on finalizing details to ensure accuracy when the chief reviewed them.

“My integrity and my family are more important than he-said-she-said,” Pickens said.

Many of the incidents mentioned in the EEOC response lack details, such as exact dates, and only one is supported by written documentation. Also, for about half of the city’s accusations, the response doesn’t indicate that Pickens was given a verbal or written warning.

Pickens said he believes the lack of details and documentation suggest the information was “tampered with” only after his allegations of racism surfaced. He said if any of the claims were true, “why didn’t they fire me then?”

Bethune said it’s rare that one incident would cause the city to prematurely end a probationary officer’s term.

“Probationary employees are under evaluation at all times,” he said. “The decision to retain a probationary officer as a permanent police officer is based upon the overall observations of the probationary officer’s performance and fitness for duty.”

The termination letter from the chief notes that Pickens was not fired for any form of misconduct, but it stops short of specifying in what way he failed to “satisfactorily complete” his probation period.

Meanwhile, Pickens is trying to understand why he was the target of a hate crime.

He woke up at his home in unincorporated Pierce County Jan. 26 to discover his SUV had been vandalized overnight. One side of the vehicle had a racial slur spray-painted in red, while the other side read “sue cheif (sic) and pay.”

“I was in disbelief,” he said. “Whoever it could have been, why (would they) bring that to my house?”

The city issued a statement following the incident denouncing the vandalism.

“The city has no tolerance for hate speech,” it states. “This act is an offensive and deplorable crime, and we hope it is investigated and that the person or persons involved are identified and successfully prosecuted.”

A Pierce County Sheriff’s Department spokesman said the incident remains under investigation.