Head shot of black woman with short black hair smiling wearing a police uniform

What’s a black female police officer to do when her fellow white male police officer talks about blowing up Black Lives Matter protestors? Any words of caution may be interpreted as anti-police rhetoric. This is the case of Police Lieutenant Melissa McFadden.

Racial discrimination

Police Lieutenant Melissa McFadden filed a civil rights lawsuit against the City of Columbus June 4. McFadden charges, among other things, that she was “retaliated and discriminated against” for “assisting a fellow officer in drafting and filing a claim of race based discrimination….” McFadden and one other female lieutenant are the highest-ranking minority women on the Columbus police force.

The charges in McFadden’s complaint are explosive. She alleges that after accompanying an “African-American female officer” to the city’s Human Resources department to file a complaint she was targeted by the white officers at the highest level of the department.

Institutionalized racism

Long-standing claims of institutionalized racism within the Columbus Police Department are simmering right below the surface. While African Americans make up more than a quarter of Columbus’ population, they are roughly only ten percent of the city’s police force.

Former Columbus police officer and subsequent founder of Police Officers for Equal Rights (POER) wrote, “On January 4, 1971 history was made at the Columbus Police Academy. Seven Black men would begin training at the police academy. This was highest number of Blacks to take training at this facility…. The City of Columbus has never made a real effort to hire Blacks on the Columbus Police Department, because of the imbedded institutional racism. It was lawsuits by Clyde Haynie (Haynie vs. Chupka 1973) and Yula Bryant (Bryant vs. Chupka 1975) that forced the city to hire Blacks and females. The seven officers who were hired in 1971 did not represent a new open and fair hiring process. The physical examinations and background checks were treated differently than the white applicants. In the 1990’s and early in 2000 more reports would say that Columbus had a problem with race when it came to hiring Blacks.”

Unequal discipline in black and white

Columbus’ only black police chief James Jackson noted in a 2003 memo that: “The Division’s latest EEO quarterly discipline report…seems to indicate that as a percentage of total officers, female white, female black, and male black officers are being disciplined at a much higher rate than male white officers.”

At June 2004 general staff meeting, Chief Jackson once again mentioned the discipline problem: “Although the number of people disciplined is small, it appears blacks and females are disciplined to a far greater degree than white males. Make sure that when discipline is issued it is warranted and that everyone is getting disciplined fairly and without exception.”

Again in 2006 Jackson directed supervisors “to uniformly enforce all division rules and policies.”

When Police Chief Kim Jacobs took over in 2012, as documented in Department records, she removed the deputy chief from supervising the Internal Affairs Bureau (IAB), and instead had the IAB commander report directly to her. Without a civilian review board, this gave Jacobs virtually complete control over Internal Affairs.

The Columbus Police IAB is responsible for investigating complaints against Columbus Police officers. The initial IAB investigator holds the rank of sergeant, issues a report and recommends discipline. Once the sergeant’s investigation is completed, the officer’s chain of command may agree with the complaint and sustain it or overturn it as unfounded and exonerate the officer in trouble.

The Free Press has obtained internal documents from the Columbus Police Department and spoken with various officers regarding Jacobs’ disciplinary practices:

  • Chief Jacobs gave Sergeant Eric Moore a written reprimand after he called black officers “monkeys,” “apes,” and the n-word. He also prevented a black male officer from getting a job assignment. The white male officer who reported Moore was relieved of his regular duty and placed on desk duty partially due to retaliation for reporting discrimination.
  • White male sergeants Bronson Constable and Doug Jones stole thousands of dollars from the Division by getting paid for work they did not perform. When it came time to decide their punishment, Chief Jacobs failed to fire or demote them. She issued each a six-week unpaid suspension.
  • Comparison: Black male officer Kevin Morgan received pay for work he didn’t perform although much less than the male white sergeants Constable and Jones. Chief Jacobs recommended termination. Morgan has a federal lawsuit pending, fighting to get his job back.
  • Officer Meinhart pulled his gun halfway out of his holster to threaten a male black officer for saying good morning in Spanish. Even though Meinhart was sustained in the Internal Affairs investigation, his chain of command refused to issue him discipline, but ordered the male black officer to sit down and talk with Meinhart.

McFadden’s complaint specifically charges that then-Commander Jennifer Knight, in charge of the IAB, was overheard telling another officer that “She [Knight] was going to ‘take [Lieutenant McFadden] out’ for assisting the African-American female officer with her racial discrimination filing.

Another black female officer who overheard the comments filed a formal complaint against Commander Knight. Commander Knight was later removed from the IAB.

Hostile work environment

Other officers made an IAB complaint against McFadden for creating a “hostile work environment.” The basis of the complaint was McFadden’s use of the phrase “black on black crime” during the evaluation of a black officer.

But the real root of McFadden’s problem concerned comments she made about the Black Lives Matter movement. 

The Free Press obtained an IAB transcript of Chief Jacobs’ hearing against McFadden. The document reveals that Officer Estepp believed that McFadden supported the Black Lives Matter movement and erroneously believed she led an all-black study group. White officers in particular began to target McFadden and spread rumors that she endorsed the killing of Dallas police officers

Threatening Black Lives Matter

In the summer of 2017, McFadden had cautioned officers at about writing comments on Facebook, specifically questionable things regarding black lives matter, all lives matter, and blue lives matter.

At her hearing, McFadden pointed out that she had warned the officers because “…there was an investigation that was done by Internal Affairs where a sergeant posted on Facebook that they were saying a Black Lives Matter [group] is coming for a protest and a sergeant said ‘Does anybody have any C-4?’ threatening to blow up Black Lives Matter protestors.” The C-4 reference is to a military grade high explosive.

White male Sergeant Trent Taylor posed that question. Some minority officers perceived the question as a threat to blow up Black Live Matters protestors. No disciplinary actions were taken against Taylor because the employee who complained was not personally offended. If Taylor had been a civilian, his words may have been considered a terroristic threat. It is hard to imagine how such a posting did not violate of CPD policy.

McFadden’s saga led the Columbus Dispatch to portray her as some sort of black militant. The discovery phase of McFadden’s case may shed unprecedented light onto the militaristic and racist culture of the Columbus Police Department.

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