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Police officers at the University of Washington in Seattle, regarded as one of the nation’s most progressive cities, said they were the target of racist insults and harassment.
June 22, 2021
SEATTLE — Earlier this year, as Officer Russell Ellis neared the end of his late shift at the University of Washington’s campus police department, one of his superiors offered him an energy drink. The sergeant was laughing, Mr. Ellis said, noting that the beverage was flavored like watermelon.
“I thought all you guys like watermelon and Popeyes chicken,” the senior officer said, according to Mr. Ellis, who is Black. A second Black officer described a nearly identical encounter with the same sergeant two years earlier.
Mr. Ellis, 49, said the exchange left him stewing privately with anger and humiliation. But he said it was far from the first time he had faced racial disparagement or discrimination during his years at the university, a sprawling lakeside campus in Seattle that touts diversity goals to the public, shares antiracism resources with the student body and shapes the ideals of one of the nation’s most progressive — and one of the whitest — big cities.
All five Black rank-and-file officers in the university police department filed multi-million-dollar damage claims this week, describing a culture of entrenched racism that has included racial slurs, vicious comments about Black people and open hostility directed at them and at members of the public.
Dozens of incidents, ranging over the past several years through last month, are detailed in the filings. Officer Karinn Young said she sometimes found bananas placed in front of her locker, once with a note that referred to her as a “monkey” and said, “Here’s your lunch.” Officer Hamani Nowlen reported that a white supervisor hit him with a long, stick-like object and remarked, “You people should be used to being hit with these.” Officer Damien Taylor said he overheard white officers talking about the case of George Floyd, who was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis last year, saying, “His Black ass got what he deserved.”
After a Black officer was placed on leave for an internal investigation, Officer Gabriel Golden reported, he heard three white colleagues talking, with one referring to the officer in question with a racial slur, and saying that he “better not show his face around here.”
In a series of legal notices filed with the state, which are required ahead of a potential lawsuit, the five Black officers did not name the specific individuals who made the comments. The officers seek $8 million in damages for workplace conduct that they said has made their jobs “unbearable.” They said that supervisors in the department were well aware of the conduct, and some of them engaged in it themselves.
“I can’t sleep sometimes,” Mr. Ellis said in an interview. “This has affected me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined.”
As police forces across the country have worked to diversify amid concerns over racist policing, officers of color have often reported encountering hostility and discrimination. In Columbus, Ohio, Black officers have filed racial discrimination lawsuits, including allegations that they were subjected to racial slurs. In Prince George’s County, Md., more than a dozen officers of color complained that such officers faced stiffer punishments than other employees, as well as retaliation for raising complaints of discrimination. In Minnesota, eight correctional officers of color filed a complaint after they were barred from guarding Derek Chauvin, the former police officer who was eventually convicted of murder in Mr. Floyd’s death.
In Seattle, the descriptions of overt racism inside the campus police department stand out in a city that proudly touts its efforts to combat racism, and where Black Lives Matter signs can be seen in yards and windows all over town. Yet only 7 percent of Seattle residents are Black, one of the smallest concentrations among large U.S. cities. On the University of Washington’s campus in Seattle, the numbers are even smaller, with Black students comprising about 3 percent of the student body.
With nearly 50,000 students enrolled at the Seattle campus, the university’s police officers investigate on-campus crimes, patrol areas around residence halls and help manage security for public events. The department, which employs 22 officers and 11 supervisors and commanders, has touted its own diversity efforts, saying “different viewpoints, experiences and backgrounds are central to meeting the unique needs of the community we serve.” Amid last year’s racial-justice protests across the country, some of them on the university campus, the department boasted about how it trains its officers to beware of implicit bias.
University officials said on Tuesday that they were “stunned” by the allegations outlined in the legal claims, and said administrators had not previously been made aware of them. “Any one of the incidents described here would prompt an immediate investigation and appropriate disciplinary action based on the investigation’s findings,” Victor Balta, a university spokesman, said in a statement.
Mr. Ellis, who joined the campus police force in 2007, said that early in his life, he had not considered a career in policing. That changed during his junior year in high school in Sacramento, Calif., he said, when he got pulled over after football practice and a police officer pointed a shotgun at his head. The officer was searching for somebody else.
Mr. Ellis said he told one of his coaches, who also worked as a county sheriff’s deputy, what had happened.
“He said that to change law enforcement, sometimes you have to get involved,” Mr. 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.”
He began a career in 1999, working as a correctional officer in Arizona and later as a law-enforcement officer for the Washington State Liquor Control Board. When he joined the University of Washington Police Department 14 years ago, he said, he noticed problems from the beginning. 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. Mr. Ellis was not part of that lawsuit, and said he had not been not aware that it was in the works. He was new, sticking to himself, trying to fit in and avoid potential conflict.
A jury in 2011 sided with the university in that case, rejecting the discrimination claims.
Mr. Ellis left the department in 2012, in part because of the continuing atmosphere within the force. A few years later, after the department brought in new officers and new leadership, he returned.
But the problems persisted, he said, and other officers who joined the department later raised complaints of their own.
Mr. Golden, who joined the department in 2017, said he was shocked at an incident that occurred within a few weeks after he started. 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?”
Mr. Golden said he did not know anyone in the department well enough to talk about the remark at the time, and, still on his probationary period, he feared losing his job if he complained. He also worried that people would assume he was “playing the race card.”
White colleagues at the time were openly criticizing the chief, John Vinson, for hiring too many Black officers, Mr. Golden said. Mr. Vinson, who is Black, was reassigned to a position in senior administration at the university in 2019 after some of the department’s other leaders accused him of creating an atmosphere of hostility, retaliation and unethical behavior.
Since then, the department has been without a permanent chief, with the search for a permanent replacement suspended during the pandemic. Randall West, a white former deputy chief who returned to serve as interim chief, did not return a call seeking comment on Tuesday.
The officers who are part of the legal claims described problems both before and after Mr. Vinson’s departure. Mr. Golden said he heard a white officer openly using a racial slur to describe a homeless person, while another white colleague used the same term while criticizing a Black colleague.
“It progressively got worse and worse,” Mr. Golden said. “I went from loving my job, loving going to work every day, to starting to dread going into work because I didn’t know what would happen next.”
The five rank-and-file Black officers currently working in the department said in their filing this week that the longstanding culture has adversely affected their performance, advancement and mental health. Two Black managers with leadership roles in the department have not joined in the claims.
The legal notices filed on Monday are the first step in filing a lawsuit. The university has 60 days to pay or otherwise settle the claims, after which the plaintiffs can turn to the courts.
Mr. Balta, the university spokesman, said Tuesday that the school plans to initiate its own investigation into the allegations.
“The U.W. 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.
But the officers said they are convinced that senior officers have long been aware of racist attitudes within the department, and have repeatedly failed to take action.
“I really hope this can bring about the change that is needed,” Mr. Golden said. “There is so much that needs to be changed. I want people to be able to come here and not have to worry about these things.”