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Brookline seeks to fire black cops who complained of racism, unsafety

Town claims insubordination after cops refuse to return to allegedly unsafe work environment

Jule Pattison-Gordon | 3/9/2017, 6 a.m.
In a hearing last week, the town of Brookline argued that it has the right to fire two black police ...
Attorneys Oren Sellstrom (left) and Hillary Schwab (right) represented Prentice Pilot (center) and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun in a hearing last week. Banner photo

In a hearing held last Friday, the town of Brookline argued that it has the right to fire two black police officers who have refused to return to work until the department resolves what the officers say is a level of racism in the department that makes the work environment unsafe for them.

The officers, Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, have been on unpaid leave since December 2015, as they and the police leadership and town clash over what — if any — redress still is required.

While the dispute originally was sparked by several allegedly racist actions by other officers and a superior officer, the town and police chief’s handling of the situation since has caused some to question not just the conduct of the accused officers but also that of the town and police leadership.

Attorney Hillary Schwab of Fair Work, P.C., representing the officers, stated that the town violated its own policy by failing to properly investigate complaints, “and by doing so has sent a message that the town doesn’t really care about these issues.”

Schwab and Oren Sellstrom of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice, who also is representing the officers, say the police department and town have made only nominal efforts to address the officers’ concerns for their personal safety, while dismissing the severity of the alleged incidents and belittling the officers for their concerns.

Meanwhile, the town asserts that it has acted appropriately and that the officers’ prolonged absence and unwillingness to return by a February 2017 date, when ordered by the police commissioner, represents insubordination and neglect of duty. As such, their attorney says, it is grounds for dismissal.

“The fact that on February 8, 2017 the officers did not return to work is a violation of the chief’s direct order,” said Joseph Padolsky, town attorney, “The town has an obligation to its citizens. … We ask …that they [the officers] be discharged from their employment.”

Schwab countered, stating, “It is not neglect of duty for these officers to protect their personal safety when the town refuses to do it for them. The town has never taken the officers’ safety seriously.”

Schwab said that despite Zarai-Misgun’s statement to Brookline Police Chief Dan O’Leary that he feared retaliation if it emerged that he had filed complaint, O’Leary identified him to all of the police supervisors as the source of complaint. Racism and retaliation especially are threatening in police work, Schwab added, given that officers must be able to rely on each other to have their back in dangerous circumstances.

Allegations

In late 2014, three black Brookline police officers — Pilot, Zarai-Misgun, and a third officer — spoke to the police chief about racially discriminatory comments from others in the department. There are only six black officers on the 130-strong force, Schwab says.

A year later, Pilot and Zerai-Misgun brought further charges of discriminatory treatment. Their allegations included being targeted by racial slurs, suggestions that their race impedes their capability at their jobs and other demeaning comments.