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Brookline officers refuse to return to work pending racial probe

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Brookline Town Hall was packed Tuesday night as residents spoke about the racial climate in town.
Brookline Town Hall was packed Tuesday night as residents spoke about the racial climate in town.

BROOKLINE — Two Brookline police officers say they fear for their safety and will not go back to work until an independent investigator hired by the town completes a full investigation of what they describe as a climate of racism in the department.

Speaking Tuesday night before a meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Officers Estifanos Zerai-Misgun and Prentice Pilot said they are prepared to defy orders to go back to work until town officials do more than hide behind policy.

Zerai-Misgun said he went to Police Chief Daniel O'Leary more than a year ago and told him that a superior officer had questioned why a black man would be allowed behind the wheel of an unmarked cruiser — just one of several racially charged remarks Zerai-Misgun said he had heard from fellow officers.

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"He gave me his assurance a year ago, and nothing has changed," Zerai-Misgun told selectmen at a packed meeting in Town Hall.

"And now all you say is you're waiting, and you can't give out certain information because you're doing an investigation. What investigation? No one has contacted me," he said. "It's not a safe environment there, and you can't assure us it is until it's fully investigated."

However, Board of Selectmen chairman Neil Wishinsky said he is confident in O'Leary's ability to keep the officers safe.

"To be absolutely clear, there will be no tolerance of discrimination or related retaliation against any employee of the Brookline Police Department," Wishinsky said. "We sincerely hope that you return to work with the understanding and belief that the chief, this board, and the town, as demonstrated by the turnout here, will support you."

Last month, Wishinsky said the town would hire an independent investigator after the officers told the town's Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations Commission about their experiences. The police chief also initiated an investigation and tapped an outside consultant "to assist with assessing the overall climate of the department," according to a statement on the department's website.

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Pilot described an incident in early December when he pulled up in his cruiser to say hello to an officer on detail and was met with a crude comeback. The officer used a racial epithet and told him to do "jumping jacks and I'll put in a good word for you," Pilot said.

Pilot said he immediately went to O'Leary, who told him he would investigate the allegations. Less than two weeks later, Pilot said he received a letter saying the internal investigation 's results were "inconclusive." He said the letter ordered him back to work and did not mention the concern he raised over his safety in the workplace.

"Funny, I got that letter delivered to my home, by police officers, 20 minutes before I was going to the diversity commission meeting," he said.

The two officers went before the diversity commission Dec. 16, and with a group of residents attended the selectmen's meeting Dec. 22, when the board walked out of the meeting, putting the discussion off until the new year.

On Tuesday, the chairman of the diversity commission, Alex Coleman, had strong criticism for past practices in the town.

"The Board of Selectmen as an institution of town government has allowed a culture of institutional racism to exist through its hiring practices," he said, reading from a statement that commission members unanimously approved. The statement called on selectmen to "stamp out this culture."

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"There is a history in this town of not taking action on these matters in a timely manner. You must not repeat this history," he said.

During the public comment period Tuesday night, residents called on selectmen to grant the officers paid leave until the outside investigation is complete, and to do more to address the allegations of racism.

"I don't want to see any more pretty words; I want to see action," resident Shifra Freewoman said. "I want people to feel safe, and if this board can't do it, let's elect a board than can."

Abram Chipman, a 40-year resident of the town, said there is no more or less racism in Brookline because it pervades the country.

"But attitudes of bigotry are not looked at here; they're covered over with refinement and false liberalism," he said. "Almost like what you see in alcoholics: denial."

Before and after the comment period of the meeting, residents waited to shake Zerai-Misgun's and Pilot's hands, give them a hug, and thank the men for speaking out.

"Thank you. How unbelievably courageous you are," one woman told Zerai-Misgun.

"I have a 2-year-old; I couldn't have looked him in the eye," he replied.


Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at eishkanian@gmail.com.