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Detroit police officer sues department; alleges "rampant" racial discrimination, retaliation

detroit police car
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

An African-American police officer is suing the Detroit police department, claiming rampant racial discrimination, a hostile work environment, and an atmosphere of retaliation against black officers.

11-year department veteran Johnny Strickland lays out that case in a new federal civil rights lawsuit. It accuses Detroit police of fostering widespread racial discrimination, where white supervisors retaliate against black subordinates who complain.

Strickland says he was a target of such retaliation after reporting a 2017 incident with some white fellow officers.

He says those officers humiliated, searched, and handcuffed him after he entered an unsecured crime scene while off-duty, and identified himself as a police officer.

Strickland was accused of not leaving the crime scene when ordered. After he was handcuffed and his car searched, the officers released him, but Strickland reports he was told there would be repercussions for reporting the incident: “This goes nowhere from tonight.”

Strickland did report the incident to his supervisor, who passed it up the chain to Internal Affairs. But Strickland himself was hit with Internal Affairs charges, accused of “improper acts during and related to his encounter with Defendants who harassed him.” However, Strickland says he was unaware of these charges until his attorneys filed a request for documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

“I filed this lawsuit because discrimination and retaliation were directed at me, and I don’t want any other officers to have to suffer in the way I did,” Strickland said in a prepared statement.

"I am concerned about more than just the welfare of my fellow officers of color. It has become clear to me that if I, as a veteran police officer, can so easily become the victim of police misconduct, then the ordinary black person just doesn’t stand a chance.”

Mark Fancher, a Michigan ACLU attorney and one of Strickland’s lawyers, says Strickland’s allegations highlight a broader problem within the department.

“We have a demonstrated pattern of white supervisory officers engaging in racially antagonistic conduct toward black officers,” Fancher said. “This is certainly an incident where white officers only were causing problems for him, and the only person to come to his aid was another black officer [loosening his handfuffs].

“So there is that context. The circumstances are pretty telling.”

Fancher says Strickland’s claims are supported by a 2016 department report that found “a growing racial problem” within the Detroit Police Department.

The DPD is 67% African-American, but the report by the department’s Committee on Racial Equality maintains that certain units are “segregated” and “historically, overwhelmingly staffed by white male officers.”

The CORE report says black officers who complained about staffing practices and opportunities in various departments faced retaliation from white supervisors.

“It should be noted that this is not an indictment against the entire white Command Officer personnel, but there seems to exist within the police department a group that has chosen to operate on its own accord,” the report stated.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig released the CORE report under public and media pressure in February 2017. Just days later, Craig disbanded the CORE committee and downplayed the report’s findings, while saying he would move forward with implementing many of its recommendations.

Fancher says Craig’s inaction on that report, along with documented racist comments made by some DPD personnel on social media, are evidence that DPD leadership knows about these issues but refuse to address them.

“The leadership of the Detroit Police Department cannot claim they are unaware of the racially hostile work environment that Johnny Strickland and other officers experience on a daily basis,” Fancher said.

Strickland’s lawsuit seeks a court order “against the illegally racially hostile work environment that currently exists at the Detroit Police Department,” as well as damages.

The DPD declined comment on the pending lawsuit.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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