Assistant police chief files discrimination suit against city of Durham, Lopez, Bonfield

07/30/2014 1:58 PM

07/30/2014 2:00 PM

Assistant Police Chief Winslow Forbes is suing the city for civil-rights violations, demanding a jury trial, with Police Chief Jose L. Lopez and City Manager Tom Bonfield named co-defendants.

Forbes’ attorney, Caitlyn Thomson, filed the suit late Tuesday afternoon. Forbes claims he was passed over for promotion because of complaints he had made about discrimination in the Police Department.

He also claims Bonfield and Lopez were “willful and wanton” in “reckless disregard” for his right to be free from “unlawful race discrimination ... in the workplace.”

Bonfield did not immediately respond, while Lopez referred a request for comment to City Attorney Patrick Baker.

“I wouldn’t be able to give you one,” Lopez said.

Thomson said the suit had not been formally served as of Wednesday afternoon, but she had sent Baker a copy as a professional courtesy. Baker said he had no comment on the suit, which he had not read in its entirety.

“We’ll respond to the allegations and look forward to defending the city in this matter,” he said.

Federal complaint

The suit follows a discrimination complaint Forbes filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission last August, citing discrimination on the basis of race in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

In response to the complaint, the EEOC investigated and on April 30 the U.S. Department of Justice issued a “Notice of right to sue within 90 days.”

“It's just a standard form letter from USDOJ,” Thomson said. “In cases against government employers ... the EEOC does an investigation, but USDOJ reviews it and then issues the right to sue letter.”

Issuing the notice, according to both Thomson and Baker, ends any federal involvement with Forbes’ complaint.

“If the DOJ were going to take the case they wouldn’t issue a right to sue, they’d just take it on their own,” Baker said. “But if they’re not inclined to do that, for whatever reason, then ... their choosing or not choosing doesn’t really have any bearing on the allegations themselves.”

Thomson said the EEOC has jurisdiction to bring lawsuits on behalf of private-sector employees, but, though it handles complaint investigations, only the Department of Justice has authority to bring suit against a “government entity.”

“That almost never happens in individual discrimination cases,” she said.

Among Forbes’ allegations:

•  “In or around 2011,” Lopez promoted a white lieutenant to captain over a black female lieutenant who was at the top of a rating list for promotion.
•  Lopez and two white members of the department’s executive team decided the same lieutenant was not a good choice for the West Point Leadership Academy because she spoke in “African American Vernacular English.” Forbes objected to the comments and subsequently appointed her to the academy, which he was authorized to do.
•  In 2012, Forbes and a white officer applied for promotion to deputy chief when the position came open due to retirement. A review panel rated them both “above average,” but Lopez chose the white officer. Afterward, When Forbes told Lopez that many black officers had a perception of discrimination, and that he objected to discrimination or bias, Lopez “responded in a defensive and angry tone.”
•  In 2013, another deputy chief position came open, but Forbes was not appointed even though he was the only candidate remaining from the previous review panel list. Forbes states he believes Lopez made that decision in retaliation for his earlier comments about racial discrimination. Lopez appointed another black assistant chief to the position, but Forbes claims he was better qualified.
•  Forbes filed complaints in early 2013 with the city human resources office, which an outside consultant found “not substantiated.” Then, in July, according to the suit, Lopez made a racially offensive remark in a meeting of officers and other city employees.
•  Lopez said he did not recall the remark. Forbes says he reported the remark to Bonfield, who later stated that accounts of the meeting from others there were not consistent with Forbes’ account. Forbes contends that Bonfied knew that was a false statement.

Forbes’ suit requests a jury trial and that the defendants be assessed punitive damages “exceeding $10,000,” and his attorney’s fees and other costs.

Once the complaint is served, Thomson said, the city has 30 days to respond and may request a 30-day extension. In the meantime, she said, Forbes is continuing his regular duties as assistant chief.

“He’s a professional,” Thomson said. “It’s somewhat awkward, obviously ... because everyone (else in the department) is talking about it.”

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