Metro

Brookline seeks to fire two officers who complained of racial discrimination

Brookline police officers Prentice Pilot (left) and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun at Brookline town hall in January 2016.
John Blanding/Globe staff
Brookline police officers Prentice Pilot (left) and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun at Brookline town hall in January 2016.

BROOKLINE — More than 100 people on Friday morning packed a civil service hearing in which the town asked a hearing officer to recommend firing two police officers who complained of racial discrimination on the force.

Attorneys for the Board of Selectmen said the two officers — Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun — ignored a direct order to report after being out of work for more than a year.

But in court papers and other filings, Pilot and Zerai-Misgun said they didn’t come to work out of fear for their safety, after reporting racial discrimination on the force.

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They said fellow officers referred to them with racial slurs and ostracized them after they reported the conduct. They said town officials failed to properly investigate their complaints or discipline those responsible.

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In one case, Zerai-Misgun said, he was inside an unmarked police cruiser when a Brookline lieutenant saw him and said, “Who would put a black man behind one of those?”

Pilot complained that a superior told him to get on the sidewalk and perform jumping jacks, using racial slur. Pilot said the discrimination he faced made him quit the department’s SWAT/SRT team “out of concern for his safety.”

Both officers said they don’t feel safe working in the department and have not returned to work since December 2015.

“Nothing is going to change in the town of Brookline’s police department until the town recognizes the problem that it has and takes responsibility for it,” said Hillary Schwab, one of the officers’ attorneys.

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But the selectmen’s attorney for the case, Joseph Padolsky, said the town “cares deeply” about the two officers and has taken several steps to address their concerns.

The town commissioned reviews of its police force in 2016, including one which reported that the “vast majority” of those interviewed in the department are satisfied with its “climate of diversity.” That same review found that people of color reported nepotism within the police department, referring to an “old boy Irish network” that prevented them from having equal access to employment opportunities.

In a statement released Friday, the town said a “comprehensive, multi-tiered response” was launched in response to the officers’ complaints. Police implemented a “racial climate review” of the department and conducted anti-discrimination training for officers.

While both sides said they remain open to mediation, the officers haven’t returned to work. They have sued the town, and a trial is scheduled to start in summer 2018 in Norfolk Superior Court, said Oren Sellstrom, one of the officers’ attorneys.

The court case will continue, regardless of the outcome of Friday’s civil service hearing, Sellstrom said.

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Padolsky said that police Chief Daniel O’Leary ordered the pair to report to work by Feb. 8. When they did not appear, the town moved to fire the officers for violations of the department’s regulations, including for neglect of duty and insubordination.

“As employees of the town of Brookline, the officers are required to report for duty, and they have not done so, and most recently, in violation of the chief’s direct orders,” said Padolsky.

The officers pointed to the turnout for the hearing, which packed a town hall meeting room, as support for their complaints.

“It says to me people are concerned with what is going on in their community today,” said Pilot, who was previously a Brookline officer from 1994 to 2001, before returning in 2004.

Zerai-Misgun, who joined the force in 2012, said they want a proper investigation before they’ll discuss returning to work.

“I was a great police officer. I miss the impact I had,” Zerai-Misgun said.

Julia Freedson was among those who gathered for the hearing and said she was concerned by the town’s handling of the case.

“They’re taking a move to fire the officers when they should be taking steps to protect their rights within the department,” Freedson said.

Stephen Vogel noted that both the police and fire departments have faced lawsuits alleging race discrimination.

“It raises concerns about how seriously issues of racial bias are taken by the town,” Vogel said.

The hearing officer, attorney James Lampke, who is hired by the town, will determine which of 97 exhibits in the case will be accepted into evidence.

He will file a written recommendation to the Brookline Board of Selectmen, who have authority to fire police officers and firefighters.

Lampke played a similar role last year, when he recommended to Brookline selectmen that former firefighter Gerald Alston should be fired because he was unfit for duty. Alston, who is African-American, was fired by selectmen in October, about six years after he complained to town officials that a superior officer called him a racial slur.

Alston is currently suing the town in federal court.

Lampke’s recommendation to selectmen should be filed within the next couple of months, he said.

John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com