The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has ruled that a Black state trooper working on the security detail of then-Governor Deval Patrick was the victim of racial discrimination when he was removed from the team in 2013, awarding him a judgment that has grown to $1.29 million.
The MCAD did not blame Patrick, Massachusetts’ first Black governor, in its June decision, but concluded that State Police supervisors discriminated against Sergeant Cleveland Coats when they removed him, instead of less-experienced white officers, from the security detail. The MCAD hearing officer also found evidence that white officers referred to Coats by a racially insensitive nickname.
“Complainant’s treatment stands in stark contrast to the manner in which younger, Caucasian males were treated in the (Executive Protection Unit),” wrote MCAD hearing officer Betty Waxman. She found that Coats was “ousted” from the unit despite his “spotless disciplinary record and outstanding employee evaluations” over a 32-year career.
But Patrick is pushing back against the MCAD’s findings. In an unusual move, Patrick wrote a personal letter to his successor, Charlie Baker, bristling at the notion race was a factor in Coats’s removal. The letter, dated Aug. 30 but released by Baker’s office recently, provides potential new evidence for an appeal of the MCAD decision by the State Police, now pending.
“The team was also racially diverse and remained so after Coats’s transfer,” wrote Patrick, who was not involved in the MCAD trial and admitted in the letter he didn’t know all the facts of Coats’s case. “Too often claims of racial discrimination, let alone findings to that effect, go unaddressed or unremedied,” but the working environment among his security unit members was “appropriate, professional, and warm.”
He described Coats as “an able and accomplished member of the detail, whom I liked personally. However, he seemed ill-at-ease with the frequent and significant public engagement that was a part of how we did the job.”
Patrick declined further comment through a spokesman.
Democratic strategist Scott Ferson, said Coats’s allegations underscore the entrenched nature of racial tensions — even a Black governor can’t stop them among the people working closely with him.
“Under the first African-American governor’s nose,” said Ferson, who was a campaign spokesman for then-Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray and the Patrick/Murray ticket. “This shows how deeply seated the culture is in law enforcement.”
“The guy is lovely,” he said, referring to Coats. “I’m glad he won his case.”
Harold Lichten, an employment lawyer who frequently practices before the MCAD, described MCAD hearing officer Waxman as an experienced former arbitrator and mediator who often sides with employers.
“This decision shows that for years there was a systemic problem within the State Police regarding how minority officers were treated that went unaddressed,” he said.
When Waxman’s decision was first handed down, the State Police moved to impound all case documents, citing national security concerns, according to Coats’s lawyer, Lisa Brodeur-McGan. The decision was finally released in late October, though the exhibits and other documents are still not public.
State Police spokesman David Procopio said the agency initially withheld documents to avoid compromising the work of the governor’s security detail. He said the “dignitary protection community” has guidelines to determine “what type of material may be made public and what may not, so as not to jeopardize mission security. "
Last summer, one member of Patrick’s security team, Kevin Scaplen, was promoted to detective captain, records show.
Procopio issued a statement Tuesday touting the department’s efforts to increase diversity in its workforce.
“Colonel (Christopher) Mason values diversity and equality of opportunity and has made it a priority to build a Department that reflects the communities we serve, and was pleased to swear in the most diverse recruit class this year in the history of the Department,” the statement said.
The department is appealing the decision and hopes to present additional evidence that “calls into question” the decision. That additional evidence is likely to include Patrick’s letter.
In her decision, Waxman describes how troopers were handpicked for the executive protection unit without any process. She cited testimony by Lieutenant Carmelo Ayuso, president of the Massachusetts Minority State Police Officers Association, who said the lack of job postings for such highly coveted positions was an “equal opportunity concern.” He said nearly all troopers chosen for those positions were white.
Coats had been in the unit since Patrick had taken office. In fact, he had volunteered on Patrick’s campaign.
When Murray resigned in 2013 without a replacement, the security team needed to be smaller. According to Waxman’s decision, the two troopers who were transferred out were Coats, the only black supervisor, and Deborah Thompson, the only woman.
In her decision, Waxman says Coats’s removal from the unit devastated him.
“He described in compelling terms that he loved being in the EPU,” wrote Waxman “and that when he was removed he became irritable, reclusive, and separated himself from other people including his family. He felt stressed-out and apprehensive.
“He said he was embarrassed and disgusted at the way he had been treated.”
She said her description of Coats’s pain “appears to only scratch the surface of what (he) experienced.”
Among Coats’s allegations was that in 2012 others in the unit called him “Grady,” a reference to Grady Wilson, a bumbling Black character from the 1970s sitcom Sanford and Son. Scaplen and another officer, Sergeant Stephen Flaherty, testified that it was just a joke involving several members of the unit, who were also compared to actors. Everyone, including Coats, laughed, they testified.
Coats alleged it was not part of a larger joke, but rather an insult directed at him alone. He testified that he asked Scaplen to stop calling him “Grady,” but he didn’t.
Hearing officer Waxman called Scaplen and Flaherty’s explanation “belabored and unconvincing,” while Coats “testified in a convincing manner that there was no gag, just Commander Scaplen calling him an unflattering name. "
Coats was awarded $148,000 in lost wages, $250,000 in emotional distress damages, both with 12 percent annual interest since he filed his complaint in 2014. He was also awarded lawyer’s fees. So far the total is $1.29 million.
The State Police were ordered to “cease and desist from all acts of discrimination” and to conduct antidiscrimination training for any senior manager or supervisor who makes assignment and promotional decisions.
Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Andrea Estes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.