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Brookline denies paid leave to officers who alleged racial bias

Brookline police officers Prentice Pilot (left) and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun have been off the job since December.
Brookline police officers Prentice Pilot (left) and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun have been off the job since December.John Blanding/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Brookline has denied paid leave to two black police officers while their allegations of racial hostility and unsafe working conditions within the department are investigated, the town attorney and lawyers for the men confirmed this week.

The officers, Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, have not been on the job since December, when they went public with reports of racist comments directed at them by colleagues that they said the town and police chief failed to properly investigate or remedy.

“Our clients have been the targets of workplace discrimination, and they face the threat of serious retaliation,” one of their attorneys, Hillary Schwab of Fair Work P.C., said in a press release Thursday. “The denial of paid administrative leave to these officers is outrageous.”

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But Brookline Town Counsel Joslin Ham Murphy said putting the men on paid administrative leave is not an option under the town’s personnel and leave policies.

Under these policies, employees in Brookline are typically put on paid administrative leave “when disciplinary action against them is contemplated,” she wrote in an email to the Globe.

Last fall two Brookline firefighters were placed on paid administrative leave after separate incidents in which one was arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, and the other faced assault charges after a fight with a homeless man at Anna’s Taqueria.

Both men were fired from the fire department within weeks of their arrests.

“Obviously, that is not the case with these two officers, therefore it is not an option under these policies,” she wrote.

But attorneys for Pilot and Zerai-Misgun challenge the notion that the policy stipulates that paid administrative leave can be used only for disciplinary matters.

“It is something they could easily do, and choose not to,” attorney Oren Sellstrom, of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights said in a telephone interview.

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Instead of being put on paid administrative leave, Murphy said the town has offered the officers mediation with an agreed-upon mediator.

The officers refused that offer in January, saying “you can’t mediate racism.”

In addition, Murphy said the town has offered to provide the officers with “alternative assignments within the police station to address the safety concerns while the full review of these matters are ongoing.”

But Sellstrom, the officers’ attorney, questioned the motivation for essentially ordering the men back to work. “Brookline’s actions show that it is treating the outcome of its investigations as a foregone conclusion,” he said in the press release.

Officials are not conducting the investigation to get the truth, he continued, but rather “just to rubber stamp the continued avoidance of the problem.”

In February, the officers filed complaints with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination alleging that the town’s refusal to properly investigate their claims of racial discrimination on the force contributed to a hostile work environment.

Pilot, with 17 years on the force, is still being paid by the town because he has not used all of his accrued sick leave, Schwab said. “But why is Officer Pilot being forced to burn through his sick time when he should be put on paid administrative leave the way officers typically are pending investigations?” Schwab asked.

Zerai-Misgun, with just four years on the force, has not received a paycheck since late January when he ran out of sick time, according to Schwab.

On March 9, Zerai-Misgun received a letter from Sandra DeBow-Huang, the town’s director of human resources, confirming that he is now on “unpaid leave status.”

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Pilot did not receive a similar letter, presumably because he is still technically being paid using his sick time, according to Sellstrom.

In an e-mail, Murphy characterized the officers as being “full-time employees, absent from work.”


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