Five campus police officers at the University of Washington (UW) claim to have been subjected to “unbearable racism” on the job, and are filing a lawsuit against the university for millions of dollars in damages.
One of the Black officers, Russell Ellis, 49, said that as he was finishing his shift one day, his boss offered him a watermelon energy drink and said, laughing, “I thought all you guys liked watermelon and Popeyes chicken.”
Apparently, many other officers have had identical experiences at the university, and it wasn’t the first time Ellis had faced such discrimination there.
According to the Seattle Times, five officers from the University campus police filed for $8 million dollars in damages, citing a culture of racism at the university that includes racial slurs, hateful comments about black people, and hostility towards them and other African Americans in the community.
The lawsuit contains dozens of racist incidents directed towards the officers over the past several years. In one, Officer Karinn Young claimed she found bananas placed outside of her locker, with a note that referred to her as a “monkey” and that said, “here’s your lunch.”
Officer Hamani Nowlen reported a situation where a white supervisor hit him with a sticklike object and uttered, “You people should be used to being hit with these.”
Finally, Officer Damien Taylor said he overheard White officers discussing the George Floyd case, and one said, “His Black ass got what he deserved.”
The officers claim in their filings that the workplace conduct has made their jobs “unbearable.” According to the filings, not only were the supervisors aware of the conduct, but they even took part in it themselves.
Other police departments across the country have been criticized by African American officers as being discriminatory and hostile towards them.
For example, in Columbus, Ohio, and Prince George’s County, Maryland, Black officers have filed racial discrimination lawsuits claiming to have been subjected to racial slurs. In Prince George’s County, more than a dozen Black officers complained that they faced harsher punishments than other employees, in addition to greater retaliation for raising complaints about said discrimination.
UW, a Seattle-based university that happens to be one of the most social justice-oriented and liberal in the country, said it was shocked to hear about the allegations. The university police department even boasted about how it trains its officers to beware of “implicit bias.”
Victor Balta, a university spokesman, stated, “Any one of the incidents described here would prompt an immediate investigation and appropriate disciplinary action based on the investigation’s findings.”
Ellis began his career in law enforcement in 1999. He said he was swayed to join the industry in order to change the environment after he was wrongfully pulled over and had a shotgun pointed to his head by a police officer. After telling one of his football coaches who also worked as a county sheriff’s deputy about the incident, he was recommended to join the profession so he could work to change it.
“He said that to change law enforcement, sometimes you have to get involved,” Ellis said. “We don’t have very many Black police officers. That was a big part of me thinking I need to be in law enforcement to change the environment of law enforcement.”
When he joined the University of Washington Police in 2007, he was already beginning to see problems. In 2008, several current and former employees filed a civil rights lawsuit against the university detailing complaints of discrimination and harassment against Black, Jewish and female officers.
Officer Gabriel Golden was shocked by an incident that occurred within a few weeks after he started in 2017. He had offered to grab a bag as a favor for a supervisor, who is white, but he said the officer responded by saying: “You kind of have to because I own you, don’t I?”
Golden also mentioned that White colleagues were complaining that the Chief, John Vinson (who is Black), was hiring too many Black officers. After he was accused by officers of creating an atmosphere of hostility and unethical behavior, he was assigned to a senior administrative position.
“It progressively got worse and worse,” Golden said about the hostile atmosphere. “I went from loving my job, loving going to work every day, to starting to dread going in to work because I didn’t know what would happen next.”
Now the university has 60 days to pay or settle, after which the plaintiffs can go to court.
Balta said that the school plans to launch its own investigation into the allegations.
“The UW is committed to maintaining a fair, equitable and inclusive environment and provides employees with many avenues for reporting inappropriate or discriminatory behavior so they can be addressed immediately,” he said.