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State police discriminated against black troopers, appeals court says

A Michigan State Police file photo.
Michigan State Police

There’s “sufficient evidence” that “race was a motivating factor” when two black state police troopers were denied promotions, the Court of Appeals ruled this week.

The Court also unanimously upheld a jury’s decision to award the troopers a total of $5.2 million in lost wages, benefits and emotional damages.

The case started in 2010, when Michigan State Police troopers Darzeil Hall and Lamarr Johnson wanted to become forensic firearms specialists.

They successfully completed training for that job through the National Forensic Science Technology Center (NFSTC), which had a training contract with the state police.

Hall and Johnson did just as well – and in some cases, even better – than their white coworkers.

But both Hall and Johnson were denied promotions, even as those white troopers were allowed to proceed. And in 2013, a jury decided that it was because of racial discrimination.

Yet the Michigan State Police vehemently denied that in court, saying there’s evidence that Hall and Johnson didn’t do a good job in certain sections of the training.

The state police point to two memos sent several weeks after both Hall and Johnson got certificates showing they’d completed the training.   

The first memo is from a NFSTC instructor, saying, according to the Court’s opinion, that the two men “were unlikely to become competent firearms examiners because of deficiencies revealed by the moot court assignment.”

The second memo was “purportedly from MSP Captain Gregoire Michaud to defendant MSP First Lieutenant Robert Topp recommending that [the two men] be removed because of deficiencies in their moot court performance.”

But later, “it was revealed that Michaud and Topp co-wrote” that memo, and the Court of Appeals found that “the timing of the memorandums strongly suggested that the reason for the removal recommendations was nothing more than an after-the-fact reason fabricated to justify the decision to remove plaintiffs even though they had scored better than some of their white counterparts and had received the same certificate of completion.”

Meanwhile, state police argued that they did promote another African American trooper who was part of that same training, and that shows there was no “racial animus” at work.

But the Court of Appeals says that while the jury could have seen that as a sign that race wasn’t a motivating factor, the jury certainly wasn’t required to look at it that way.

Leonard Mungo, an attorney for the two plaintiffs, says promoting one black trooper isn’t enough.

“You don’t have to discriminate against everybody, in order to discriminate against somebody,” Mungo says. “If that were the case, then, as long as we let one through, then we can discriminate against the rest. And the same with women: as long we let one woman through, then we can discriminate against the others.”

A spokesperson for the Michigan State Police reached Wednesday sent the following statement via email:

“We are reviewing the opinion and discussing our appeal options with the Attorney General's Office.”

Meanwhile, Mungo, the attorney for the plaintiffs, says both Hall and Johnson are still working for the State Police, but that both are allegedly experiencing intense harassment and retaliation at work because of this case.

In fact, Hall and Johnson havesued the State Police a second time, this time for the alleged retaliation they say they’re experiencing. 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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