BROOKLINE — Two Brookline police officers on Tuesday joined a federal class-action suit with six other town employees and residents who say they have been damaged by the town’s “longstanding and well-established history” of racism.
The 85-page complaint filed in US District Court in Boston alleges a history of racial discrimination and retaliation, and a culture of white privilege that the plaintiffs say permeates every aspect of town government.
The suit, filed by local attorney Brooks A. Ames, seeks financial compensation and damages, establishment of a reparation fund, and striking down the town’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Relations Commission bylaw.
“This is not just something between the four walls of a courtroom,” Ames told a crowd of about 75 supporters who gathered Tuesday evening in the lobby of Town Hall. “This is something that’s big, it’s national, it’s happening everywhere. Brookline has a chance to lead, and I think it will.”
Police Officers Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun joined in a suit filed in December on behalf of firefighter Gerald Alston, along with Brookline residents Cruz Sanabria, Juana Baez, Rogelio Rodas, and Demetrius Oviedo, and sanitation division employee Deon Fincher, who is currently out on disability.
Named as defendants are the town, the Board of Selectmen, and several town officials.
“We care very much about Officers Pilot and Zerai-Misgun, and perhaps this has not been well communicated,” Neil Wishinsky, selectmen chairman, said in a statement Tuesday night. “We care about their safety. We care about their dignity and want them to receive the respect they deserve at all times. They clearly do not feel that they have been listened to and we want to address it.”
The complaint comes nearly six weeks after Pilot and Zerai-Misgun went public with their story of ingrained racism within the Brookline Police Department which they say has left them afraid for their safety on the job. They have not worked since early December.
“We still hope to talk to them, and believe that any progress begins there,” Wishinsky said, adding that town officials are working on alternative approaches “to create a path forward.” They are also reviewing the claims of the other plaintiffs, he said.
The suit details the case of Alston, a black firefighter who says he has been ostracized from the Fire Department after reporting that a superior, Lieutenant Paul Pender, left a message on his answering machine in 2010 that contained a vulgar racial epithet.
“Brookline knowingly destroyed Mr. Alston’s career, health, and reputation to protect Lt. Pender and the town,” the suit states.
The suit also alleges that three town residents were innocent victims of police racial and ethnic profiling.
Baez, who spoke tearfully at a Board of Selectmen’s meeting earlier this month, was “harassed, intimidated, and falsely charged with disorderly conduct,” after calling police in August for help dealing with a belligerent tow truck driver illegally towing her boyfriend’s car.
Baez, who is from the Dominican Republic and has lived in Brookline for seven years, says police immediately took the side of the white tow-truck driver, ordering her boyfriend to stop speaking Spanish and demanding to see her passport, aggressively questioning whether it was legal.
The charges against Baez were dropped, but she suffered “severe emotional distress” because of the incident. “She is now afraid to have any interaction with the police,” the suit states.
The suit also details the case of Fincher, a black employee of the town’s sanitation division who allegedly was held to higher standards than his white colleagues, and Oviedo, a resident allegedly passed over for a spot on the Fire Department for a white man with a lower civil service score.
The suit also sheds more light on the situation within the Police Department that prompted Pilot and Zerai-Misgun to go public with their fears.
Zerai-Misgun, who in 2014 had the best record of arrests in the department, according to the suit, went to O’Leary along with Pilot and a third black officer to report discriminatory treatment in the department.
According to the suit, O’Leary promised he would address the officers’ concerns, and he did not.
In addition, before the meeting Zerai-Misgun had been promised an anti-crime detective position on the day shift, but after the meeting the chief eliminated the position, according to the suit.
This past December, another incident occurred which the men reported to O’Leary. This time, Pilot pulled his cruiser alongside a sergeant who was working a detail. He rolled down his window to say hello and was greeted with a crude remark by the sergeant, who used a racial epithet and told him to do “jumping jacks and I’ll put in a good word for you.”
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.
Ellen Ishkanian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.