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Fourth lawsuit makes 20 employees alleging a toxic culture within the DC police department

<i>Alex Wong/Getty Images/FILE</i><br/>A fourth lawsuit alleges a toxic culture within the DC police department. Pictured is a DC police car on February 8.
Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images/FILE
A fourth lawsuit alleges a toxic culture within the DC police department. Pictured is a DC police car on February 8.

By Maya Brown, CNN

Five current and former employees of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, have filed a lawsuit against the District of Columbia, alleging that MPD management created a hostile work environment and retaliated against them for speaking out.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the US District Court for DC, is the fourth concerning the MPD in the past six months making serious allegations about a toxic culture.

Three of the five employees previously worked in the police department’s Equal Employment Opportunity unit, which is responsible for investigating claims of discrimination filed by sworn officers and civilians at the MPD. Two still work in the department.

Thursday’s lawsuit details complaints made by counselors who worked under Alphonso Lee, the director of the EEO division at the MPD. Pamela Keith, one of the attorneys on all four lawsuits, told CNN that is telling.

“I’ve never seen a case where all five employees of an EEO Department are essentially claiming collusion to violate someone’s civil rights,” Keith said. “The whole department is telling the same tale.”

Lee declined to comment on the fourth suit and its allegations, deferring to the MPD. He is not referenced in the other three lawsuits. In response to a comment on the latest lawsuit, the MPD told CNN they cannot discuss the allegations due to pending litigation. They also said they “take these allegations seriously” and “will be reviewing them thoroughly and responding accordingly.” The MPD gave the same response regarding the first and third lawsuits and never commented on the second.

The five EEO staffers join a growing number of employees who have made a wide range of complaints against the department. A total of 20 plaintiffs — including more than a dozen Black women officers alleging racial and sexual discrimination and a culture of intimidation — are involved in all the lawsuits containing allegations against the MPD. And the allegations of misconduct, discrimination and inappropriate behavior have come from officers of all ranks: from recruits to top brass.

What does this new lawsuit allege?

Each plaintiff in the fourth lawsuit has accused Lee of retaliating against them for “reporting and opposing unlawful, unethical, noncompliant, discriminatory and retaliatory actions,” the lawsuit states. Two of the plaintiffs also allege discrimination based on race and gender.

The lawsuit alleges that Lee gave only himself the authority to remedy and negotiate EEO disputes and controlled investigations to “ensure that MPD management was not harmed or embarrassed” by any of the claims. According to the plaintiffs, Lee would make them rewrite reports that “painted management in a negative light.”

It says the plaintiffs think Lee acted as a “defender of MPD management, put in place to undermine and discredit complainants, rather than to investigate or remedy alleged acts of discrimination, or to enforce the EEO rights of MPD employees.”

“The EEO Department is supposed to be investigating in a neutral and unbiased way,” Keith told CNN, adding that Lee required all the counselors to record every complaint and he sometimes played those recordings for the people whom the complaints were against. It is also referenced in the complaint.

According to the suit, informing the target of a complaint then led to retaliation against the complainants by their superiors and peers.

Harry Carter, who was an EEO Counselor from February 2020 until December of that same year, says he was fired after reporting to the administration his concerns about how the EEO staff was being treated and managed. The suit claims he was fired not due to performance, “but rather in retaliation for Dir. Lee’s perception that Plaintiff Carter had betrayed him.”

Carter previously held the position of director of EEO Programs at the Naval Air Systems Command for about 12 years, according to the suit.

The suit also says even though “dozens of complaints against him have been filed during his tenure as EEO director,” no action has been taken to discipline Lee, correct his actions or change EEO practices.

It also accuses the MPD of violating the DC Whistleblower Protection Act, retaliation based on constructive discharge and violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1967 due to gender and race discrimination, among others.

The plaintiffs are seeking compensation and change within the EEO Department at the MPD. They want Lee to be relieved of his duties as EEO director, an “independent Special Master to conduct a thorough forensic audit” of the department and recommendations to bring the unit “into compliance with EEOC regulations and best practices,” according to the suit.

Department leadership has not publicly discussed the cases. However, allegations from the four lawsuits were discussed Thursday during a Judiciary and Public Safety Committee performance oversight hearing for the MPD. Charles Allen, a DC councilman, chaired the hearing.

“MPD as an institution is not delivering on the promise of change and police reform,” Allen said Thursday.

Several of the plaintiffs, including Carter, also testified during the hearing, detailing how they were treated by department leadership. Carter called the department’s EEO program “the worst, most corrupt” he has ever experienced.

“The problem is that nobody in management wants to own fixing this — not the police, not the mayor and not the City Council,” attorney Keith told CNN.

Neither Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office nor the DC Police Union have responded to CNN’s requests for comments.

The DC Police Union has yet to issue a statement in support of any of the plaintiffs, chairman Gregg Pemberton said during the performance oversight hearing.

Lee’s current status is unclear. Keith says he is still EEO director. Lee responded to CNN’s request for comment in an email with a signature that still lists his position as director of the EEO Department.

“The Chief can act today, instead of letting these cases wind through the courts, and the Department needs to publicly show it takes the allegations seriously,” Allen told CNN on Friday.

Previous lawsuits

Each of these lawsuits looks at a different section of the MPD alleging a toxic workplace and culture that makes it hard to question authority and attend work every day.

The first lawsuit was filed last September by 10 Black women officers who alleged racial and sexual discrimination and a culture of intimidation at MPD. That suit says each of the women complained multiple times about unfair treatment either to the department’s EEO officials or to their managers “to no avail.” The women also described a culture where supervisory and management officers abuse their power and a “profoundly dysfunctional and corrupt” EEO. Keith believes the fourth lawsuit is a follow-up to the first one.

The second lawsuit was filed about a month later by three Black women who are former members of the MPD Cadet Program, which provides training and experience in law enforcement to potential police recruits. Their suit alleges that the MPD is aware front-line supervisors abuse their power to “harass, isolate, intimidate, bully and denigrate Cadets.”

In December, two Black women who worked in the Internal Affairs Division filed the third suit, alleging they faced retaliation after speaking out against racism and misconduct by White officers.

Keith told CNN she is just scratching the surface, as she is receiving calls from MPD detectives and investigators also alleging a “hostile work environment” and other forms of “discrimination.”

Keith also testified during Thursday’s hearing and proposed solutions to the problems and allegations brought forth in the lawsuits. She urged for the Office of Human Right’s budget to be dramatically increased, so that every officer who seeks promotability must have a score based on a random sample of the people they interact with, thus causing motivation to treat everyone equally and fairly. She also recommends the EEO Department and IAD to be moved out from under the control of the chief of police.

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