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‘You can not mediate racism,’ Brookline officers say

Brookline police Officers Prentice Pilot (left) and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun walked off the job Dec. 7.
Brookline police Officers Prentice Pilot (left) and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun walked off the job Dec. 7. John Blanding/Globe Staff/File 2016/Boston Globe

Two black Brookline police officers who say racism within the department has left them fearing for their safety have rejected a public appeal from the police chief to sit down with a mediator to find a way they can return to work.

“You can not mediate racism,” they said Monday in an e-mailed statement to the Globe.

The five-page statement from Officers Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun said the town is already legally obligated to provide a discrimination-free work environment, yet “has been unable and/or unwilling to fulfill this obligation.”

The officers have been off the job since early December, shortly before they reported to the town’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations Commission that instances of racist attitudes and actions by fellow officers had left them fearful of returning to duty.

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They are asking to be put on paid administrative leave while the incidents, the first of which was reported by Zerai-Misgun to police Chief Daniel O’Leary more than a year ago, are fully investigated.

“The chief and selectmen would like us to all to believe mediation would resolve this problem,” the statement reads. “However, the problem is that Brookline has a systematic racism problem that remains unaddressed.”

Mediation would delay full resolution, they said, and “our families suffer as we go without pay in the meantime.”

O’Leary, who suggested mediation last week to address the officers’ concerns and facilitate their return to work, said he was “very disappointed” his offer was rejected.

“I agree with these Officers that racism must not be tolerated,” O’Leary said in an e-mail to the Globe. “I disagree with their characterization of the steps that have been taken to date to address their complaints. Unnamed individuals cannot be disciplined, and our laws do not permit named individuals to be disciplined without due process.”

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O’Leary urged the officers to “fully participate in the ongoing investigation” and communicate their concerns with the chief so he can take appropriate action.

Hundred of residents have attended meetings of the Board of Selectmen in support of the officers, and students at Brookline High School last Friday held a demonstration after school calling for town officials to address the issue.

The officers walked off the job on Dec. 7 when Pilot said he went to O’Leary to report an incident in which he pulled his cruiser up next to a sergeant on detail and was greeted with a crude remark. The officer used a racial epithet and told him to do “jumping jacks and I’ll put in a good word for you,” Pilot has said.

In a status report to selectmen last week, O’Leary wrote that an experienced commander investigated the complaint. “Officer Pilot believes that a slur was used; the Sergeant stated that he did not use a slur,” O’Leary wrote. “The results of that investigation were inconclusive.”

In their statement Monday, Pilot and Zerai-Misgun challenge the conclusion.

“Our work histories are exemplary,” the men wrote. “Yet all that was required was for a white officer to deny it.”

“Together, we’ve given 20 years of our best selves to Brookline. We believed we belonged here,” they wrote. “We’ve sacrificed our careers, and the security of our families, because we insist on the dignity and fair treatment that is rightfully ours as Black men, and as Americans.”

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