The city of Orting says it has agreed to settle a racial discrimination lawsuit brought by an African-American officer after he was fired just five days short of the end of his probation period two years ago.
In a mediated settlement between the city and former officer Gerry Pickens, the city agreed to pay Pickens $250,000. Pickens initially had sought $5 million. In return, Pickens dropped his lawsuit. That money will be paid from a statewide insurance reserve in which many cities participate.
Orting maintained it agreed to the settlement to avoid the higher costs of a court trial.
“The only reason we agreed to this was to save taxpayer money,” Orting Mayor Joe Pestinger said in a statement. “Had we pursued it to a jury trial, the legal fees along could very well exceeded this amount.”
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Pickens’ representative said he too wanted to put the issue behind him rather than embark on a lengthy and expensive trial. The city had come to Pickens’ attorney, Beverly Grant, with a settlement offer, she said.
Pickens now manages a car sales operation after failing to be hired for another police position despite having submitted some four dozen applications to other departments, Grant said.
The city, which announced the settlement Wednesday night, said it did nothing wrong.
Pickens, the city’s first black officer, claimed in his suit that he was treated poorly by Orting Police Chief William Drake and that he never received an evaluation before his termination. Orting countered that it wasn’t its policy to issue a formal evaluation on officers during their probationary period. Drake didn’t treat Pickens differently from other officers, the city of 7,000 claimed.
Grant countered that the city’s own employment manual required periodic evaluations for officers on probation. Pickens alleged the city told him he was fired for “unsatisfactory” performance. Yet Orting presented little documentary evidence to support the claim that he had underperformed or that he had been counseled about improving his performance, Grant said.
In an answer to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission discrimination complaint, Orting cited several problems with Pickens’ work performance, including improper completion of reports, delayed response to a high-risk traffic stop and a personal trip to his home while on duty. Pickens also failed to assist another officer in a physical altercation, the city alleged.
Pickens contended Drake used racial slurs in referring to him and that the chief suggested he find a job elsewhere because of the presence of the Ku Klux Klan in the area. During his tenure in Orting, he claimed, his personal car was spray-painted with a racial slur and a warning not to sue the chief. The department, he claimed, failed to investigate that incident.
In court documents, the city claimed that a witness who signed a statement claiming that she had heard Chief Drake use racially charged words later retracted that statement. The city’s attorneys alleged that Pickens had discussed paying that woman to make false statements against the chief.
Grant said Pickens never discussed any payments with the woman. The woman, she said, had had encounters with the police department over the conduct of her sons that made her vulnerable to pressure from them, she claimed.
Pickens had previously worked for the Atlanta Police Department where he received above-standard evaluations. He said he moved to the Northwest because he had grown up in the region.
Drake did not return a phone call Thursday seeking further information.
John Gillie: 253-597-8663