BROOKLINE — For the second week in a row, more than 150 residents crammed into Brookline Town Hall on Tuesday to demand that two black police officers be placed on paid administrative leave while allegations of racism on the force are fully investigated.
The crowd appeared before the Board of Selectmen to show support for Officers Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun and express anger over how town officials have handled the officers' complaints.
"Don't look at us like we are here bothering you — do your job. It's time now for action, specifically, do what we want, put these men on paid leave," Shifra Freewoman, a town resident who had also attended the previous week's meeting, told selectmen. "Why is it so complicated?"
In a prepared statement interrupted several times by catcalls of "racism" and "shameful," Board of Selectmen chairman Neil Wishinsky tried to calm the audience.
"I caution you that the comments you heard may not always reflect the whole story and that there are two sides or more to every story," he said.
In addition, he outlined steps the town is taking to defuse the situation, including hiring an outside investigator and mediator, and reviewing the town's policy on discrimination.
The statement did nothing to appease the crowd or the officers, however, as the stalemate continued over whether the officers should return to work or be allowed to stay out on paid leave during the investigation.
The officers say that a series of racist incidents, which they first reported to Police Chief Daniel O'Leary a year ago, have left them fearful for their safety on the job.
During the latest incident, Pilot said, he pulled his cruiser up next to an officer on detail to say hello 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. The men have not been back to work since Pilot reported the incident to O'Leary on Dec. 7.
Town officials, however, assert that the officers have yet to articulate the reasons they feel afraid to return to work.
"We, the chief, and their own union have offered their assurances, and yet they have elected not to tell us what makes them unsafe," Wishinsky said in his prepared statement. "This needs to occur without delay so these officers can return to work where they belong and where we want them."
Zerai-Misgun said he has been waiting for a call from the town's human resources director, Sandra DeBow-Huang, or another official ever since he first went to the police chief a year ago with complaints about racially charged incidents involving fellow officers. In one case, Zerai-Misgun said, a superior officer questioned why he, a black man, would be allowed behind the wheel of an unmarked cruiser.
In an interview Wednesday, Zerai-Misgun said the psychological pressure of working in a department where they have felt discrimination for over a year without ever being contacted by town investigators, and then having another incident occur, has left Zerai-Misgun and Pilot fearful for their safety on the job until an independent investigation of their complaints is complete.
The town has hired Reginald Nunnally, described by Wishinsky as "an experienced and respected individual," to investigate at a cost of $85 an hour, according to Town Administrator Mel Kleckner.
On Wednesday, Kleckner also issued a clarification about a sentence in Wishinsky's statement Tuesday that "the officers are receiving pay right now."
The officers were adamant that Zerai-Misgun, a six-year veteran of the force, had not been paid since Dec. 22.
Kleckner's statement verified that assertion, but said Zerai-Misgun's sick days were replenished at the first of the year, and that he should receive a full paycheck for the current week.
Kleckner's statement also said that "to date, the town has not challenged Officer Pilot's or Officer Zerai-Misgun's extended leave status."
A letter from O'Leary to Zerai-Misgun dated Dec. 23, however, states that his "available vacation time has been exhausted," and that he has not requested to be put on any other type of leave, and is considered "absent without leave" effective on that date.
A letter from DeBow-Huang to Pilot, also dated Dec. 23, acknowledges his request for extended sick leave, and asks for him to have his physician fill out forms to apply for 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act "for your own serious health condition."
Kleckner's statement Wednesday concludes, "Any future accommodation of their leave status will be carefully considered, balancing the Board of Selectmen's sincere desire to underscore its strong stand against discrimination in the workplace with its legal and fiduciary responsibility to the taxpayers.
"In my view, this requires a commitment from these officers to cooperate in the investigations concerning their allegations about discriminatory conduct and an unsafe workplace so that the town can appropriately respond and take action."
Residents, including many students, started gathering in the selectmen's meeting room just after 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday in a show of support for Pilot and Zerai-Misgun, who is known in town as "Officer Z."
"I have a personal connection to Officer Z, but I feel like I have to be here because if it could happen to him, it could happen to me or someone in my family," said Diyana Tekleghiorghis, an 11th-grader at Brookline High School who was at the rally with two classmates.
"These men are out there to protect us," she said. "I feel like I need to be here to protect them."
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.