A white Michigan police officer has received a $65,000 settlement from the city of Hastings after he claimed in a lawsuit he was racially discriminated against when he found out through a genetic test that he is part black, MLive.com reports.
Sergeant Cleon Brown, who learned of his African ancestry in 2016, filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city in April 2017, federal court records show. Brown had sought $500,000 from the city. His attorney, Karie Boylan, argued in the lawsuit that the stress of the situation affected Brown’s health and ability to work.
In the lawsuit, Brown accused the city of Hastings, Police Chief Jeff Pratt, former mayor Frank Campbell, city manager Jeff Mansfield, Deputy Chief Dale Boulter, Detective-Sergeant Eric Inrgram, sergeants Dennis Lajcak and Kris Miller and officers Josh Sensiba, Karen Larson, Matt Doster, Shawn Olmstead, Kraig Dingman, Brian Hansford and Kendra Backing of violating the Civil Rights Act, the Michigan Whistleblowers’ Protection Act and of intentional inflection of emotional distress.
Here’s what you need to know about Cleon Brown and the lawsuit:
1. Brown Is a Michigan Native & Army Veteran Who Joined the Hastings Police Department in 1998 & Was Promoted to Field Sergeant in 2016
Cleon Brown, 48, is a Michigan native, according to the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. He graduated from Maple Valley High School in Vermontville in 1989 and then joined the U.S. Army. He served for seven years, including during the Gulf War, and was injured during combat, according to the lawsuit. He was determined to be 30 percent combat disabled when he left the Army with an honorable discharge.
After serving in the Army, Brown studied fire science and criminal justice in college and was hired as a police officer in Hastings in 1998. In 2016, he was promoted to patrol sergeant in charge of the afternoon shift. During his career, he was the receipient of to “life-saving awards,” according to the lawsuit.
His attorney, Karie Boylan said fellow officers turned their backs on him when he filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint prior to the lawsuit.
“Based on the openly hostile, retaliatory behaviors displayed by the Defendants (the City Manager, Police Chief, the Deputy Chief, one of four sergeants, and one of seven Officers), and tacit approval of Defendant’s conduct by many other Hastings officers, it is more likely than not, Plaintiff will not have adequate back up in the event of an emergency,” Boylan wrote in the lawsuit.
Boylan told MLive.com after the settlement that Brown felt “bullied” by the city and couldn’t afford to continue the lawsuit. She said he was a “good cop” who was “well-liked and respected” by other officers before “the city ruined his life.”
The city had argued that Brown was not part of a protected class, but agreed to the settlement to end the case.
“Suffice it to say that the process to resolve these matters is less than perfect, so the outcome of the process is less than ideal,” Hastings City Manager Jeff Mansfield said in a statement. “But the City Council agreed that entering into this mediated settlement agreement would allow the City to focus its efforts and resources on more productive endeavors in the days ahead.”
2. He Says He Found Out He Is 18 Percent African Through an Ancestry.com Test & That Led to Taunts From Fellow Officers & the City’s Police Chief, Who Called Him ‘Kunta’
Brown says in the lawsuit that in 2016 he took a genetic test through Ancestry.com, which revealed he is “18 percent African African,” which he did not know before, according to the lawsuit. He said he told other Hastings Police Department about the test results. At one point, Police Chief Jeff Pratt learned about it and called Brown “Kunta,” a reference to the character Kunta Kinte in the Alex Haley novel “Roots: The Saga of An American Family,” according to the lawsuit.
Brown said other officers whispered “Black Lives Matter” while pumping their fists as they walked by him. He also accused the city’s former mayor of telling a racist joke using the word “Negroid” two or three times.
In response to the lawsuit, the city of Hastings argued “African American” is not a possible result of the Ancestry.com. test, MLive.com reports. Brown has said the Ancestry.com results showed he was 18 to 33 percent “sub-Saharan African.”
The city also said that Ancestry.com does not provide information on race and Brown is not part of a protected class, according to MLive.com
“If plaintiff is allowed to be included as the member of a protected class because of the self-reported results of a commercial ancestry test, then the courts will be in the business of ‘certifying bloodlines and races,'” Hastings’ attorney, Michael Bogren wrote, in court documents. “Ancestry.com’s website also states that the test results do not definitively reveal where a person’s ancestors actually originated; only that there are shared characteristics in genes, which might or might not indicate a person’s ancestors are actually from that geographic area.”
You can read the city’s full statement in response to the lawsuit here.
3. A Black Santa Head With ‘18%’ Written on Its Beard Was Left in a Stocking, Which Brown Calls ‘Straight Up Racism’
According to the lawsuit, a Christmas tree is set up every December in the police department lobby for all employees and members of the public to see. Each officer has a stocking with his or her name written on it hung from the tree, the lawsuit says.
In December 2016, a Santa with a black face was put in Brown’s stocking with “18%” written on its beard. Brown said the figurine was put in the stocking by Sergeant Kris Miller.
“I call it straight up racism,” Brown told WDIV-TV about the figurine.
The city argued that Brown was “jovial” about the findings of the Ancestry.com results when he told fellow officers. The city said in a statement that Brow “joked” to other officers “in racially derogatory ways such as suggesting that he now knows why ‘he likes chicken so much’; ‘the 18% is all in my pants’; and other similarly inappropriate derogatory comments and sterotypes.” Brown has denied those accusations.
“It wouldn’t even cross my mind to say something like that,” Brown told Fox 2 Detroit. “It’s their attempt to shift blame. What else can they do at this point.”
In January 2017, Brown filed a complaint of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to the lawsuit, Brown said he faced retaliation from other employees when they learned of the complaint. He said he was “unfriended” on Facebook by other officers and blocked from the Hastings’ cadet officers’ Facebook page.
In February 2017, Brown was not allowed to play in the annual basketball game between Hastings cadets and police officers, and in another charity game. He was also not allowed to attend training sessions.
4. His Father, Who Had Black Curly Hair & Darker Skin, Would Say Their Family Was Part Native American & the Younger Brown’s Daughter Was Diagnosed at Birth With an Illness Typically Found in African-Americans
Brown told Fox 2 Detroit that there were signs that his background included non-white heritage. He said his father had a dark complexion and curly hair, but would say that came from Native American ancestry, according to the news station.
“I was shocked but I’m very proud. I’m shocked because I thought I was Native American and it answered a whole bunch of my questions,” he told Fox 2 Detroit.
Brown told the New York Times that his name, which he shared with his late father, would often lead people to think he was black.
He told the Times that when he was taunted over his ancestry discovery he thought, “This is why we have a great divide in this nation.” He added, “I just never thought it would be in Hastings, saying, like, racist comments to me. All the years I’ve been there we never joked about race.”
Brown told WILX-TV that when his daughter was born, she was diagnosed with an illness typically found in African-Americans. “My oldest daughter was born with a medical issue and the specialist thought there was African heritage in our blood line,” he told the news station.
Brown told the Times his family isn’t sure what to make of his father’s claims about their Native American heritage, “I’ve talked with a lot of family members and we feel, I don’t know this for a fact, we feel because he was born in 1940, he didn’t want anybody to know that he had black heritage in him. So I think he just came up with the Blackfoot Indian thing just to kind of sell it to people and hope that they’d believe it.”
5. The City Says Brown, Who Will Remain on Paid Leave Until October 31 or Until He Finds New Job
Cleon Brown remains on paid administrative leave as he tries to find another job. He will stay on leave until he finds employment or until October 31, according to the settlement. His attorney told MLive.com that he and his wife want to move on from the ordeal. Brown is considering finding another job in law enforcement.
Brown told Fox 2 Detroit he was prepared for a fight, “I don’t care if you are in a blue uniform or not. If you do something wrong I’m going to say it.”
His attorney, Karie Boylan, told WOOD-TV, “These are law enforcement officers. These are people who are supposed to understand cultural sensitivities.”
Brown said the reaction to his complaint made it impossible for him to do his job. “They were real quiet to me and in police work, you have to communicate,” Brown told WILX-TV.
Boylan told WDIV-TV that her client is planning to sell his home and move. “They didn’t want this to be a big case,” she said about Brown and his wife. “He was hoping that by filing the complaint the harassment would be over, but it wasn’t.”