Behind the blue wall: Claims of bias in the State Police force
Jim Jones hadn’t been a State Police trooper long when his commanding officer threatened to sell him to a different plantation.
The captain who reveled in those racist taunts died years ago, Jones said, and the kind of overt bigotry that was common in an earlier era is mostly buried. But a more subtle bias remains very much alive in the barracks of the Massachusetts State Police, said Jones, who was the department’s highest-ranking African-American when he retired last September.
Jones, whose career and credentials should have left him well-positioned for the department’s highest ranks, quit the force in frustration after he said the department failed to punish a major who ostracized him. Instead, the commander promoted Jones to a dead-end desk job, a move designed, Jones believes, to persuade him to abandon his discrimination complaint.
“I couldn’t stomach it anymore,” said Jones, who retired as a major at age 49. “I left the State Police because my heart was broken.”
Inside the overwhelmingly white and male barracks of New England’s largest police force, women and minority troopers say they must navigate a workplace culture that can be hostile or even discriminatory toward them, according to a Globe investigation.
In interviews and court documents uncovered through a statewide review of dozens of recent lawsuits filed against the department, troopers and civilians say they have endured racial slurs and racist jokes, homophobic taunts, sexual advances, and lewd remarks — claims the state has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to settle.
Several troopers say bias also affects employment decisions, and they allege that the overwhelmingly white and male command staff tend to select people who look like themselves or who travel in social circles like their own. At least nine troopers, in recent lawsuits, allege they were repeatedly passed over for promotions and plum assignments or barred from the force on the basis of race or gender.
The department is proudly paramilitary in structure and notoriously resistant to prying eyes, with its inner workings largely obscured from the people it is charged with policing.
Even those active troopers who are currently suing the department were reluctant to speak for this article, fearing retribution and honoring a code of silence common among police. To obtain a sense of the internal culture of the State Police, the Globe scoured dozens of lawsuits, scattered throughout the state and difficult to track down because of the state’s restrictive public records laws and court protocols.
Responding to the various allegations, David Procopio, a spokesman for the State Police, said in an e-mailed statement that the department “is committed to providing a work environment that welcomes diversity of race, ethnicity, gender, age and sexual orientation and demands tolerance of all employees.” Through Procopio, Colonel Richard D. McKeon, superintendent of the State Police, declined an interview request for this story, citing the pending cases.
Procopio cited efforts to diversify the force through recruitment that appear to be paying dividends. Nearly 30 percent of the State Police applicants for the upcoming civil service exam are nonwhite, according to data provided by the department — a far greater percentage than the current force and greater even than the nonwhite percentage of the population of Massachusetts.
“We believe the more closely the department represents the population we serve and protect, the better we fulfill our public safety mission,” Procopio said.
Documenting just how serious and prevalent the alleged race and gender issues are inside the department’s barracks is difficult. Procopio pointed out that the number of complaints filed with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination — about 50 since 2010 — “represents a minuscule fraction of the department’s total workforce” of nearly 2,700 sworn officers and civilian personnel. Nearly half of those cases, Procopio said, were withdrawn, found to lack probable cause, or won by the department; most of the rest are pending, either with the commission or in court.
Allegations made against the State Police are investigated in a number of venues. Hundreds of complaints a year, many lodged by the public, are reviewed by the department’s internal affairs unit. Those records are public by law, but when the Globe requested just one file last year, State Police demanded $500 for the staff time to review and redact it.
A separate unit investigates internal allegations of harassment involving sworn officers or civilian staff. In denying a Globe records request for that unit’s recent findings, State Police wrote that they reviewed “approximately 85 reports and/or inquiries” generated since the start of 2010, but argued that the material is exempt under the state records law. The Globe’s appeal of that denial is pending.
Two other records requests filed last fall, seeking more information about each discrimination commission complaint and about legal agreements in which the state paid to settle lawsuits against the department, are also pending.
The lawsuits represent a window into retrograde attitudes infecting some portion of the State Police, according to those who have spoken out about the department’s culture.
“It’s like being on the schoolyard,” said Derek Langton, a retired state trooper who sued the department for discrimination after several fellow troopers allegedly harassed him for being gay, stuffing his locker with condoms, deflating his cruiser’s tires, and making crass remarks about his husband’s Asian ancestry.
“I loved the job,” said Langton, who accepted a $10,000 settlement from the department, records show. “I hated what happened.”
Several discrimination lawsuits
Most legal actions against State Police in recent years have stemmed from motor vehicle crashes involving on-duty troopers and civilians — property damage and personal injury claims that are typically settled for a few thousand dollars. Another handful of lawsuits have come from troopers who were terminated after alleged misdeeds.
But at least 10 current and former troopers and recruits have filed lawsuits in recent years alleging harassment or discrimination on the basis of race or gender.
In a 2014 lawsuit, Lieutenant Warren Yee alleged that State Police passed him over for a transfer at least seven times without so much as an interview. Yee alleged that his ability to speak Chinese would have been valuable at Troop F — Logan International Airport. In depositions, Yee noted that other officers in the past had allegedly mocked his Asian heritage by asking whether he was delivering Chinese food or dry cleaning.
The candidates transferred or promoted in his stead were all white and nearly all were younger, he alleged, and some were less qualified.
Last Wednesday a Suffolk Superior Court judge ruled against Yee, finding that the State Police decision not to transfer him to a lateral position could not reasonably be grounds for a discrimination complaint. Yee’s lawyer declined to comment.
Cindy Doty, one of the first women to command a special State Police tactical unit, alleged in a 2012 affidavit that her commanding officer so despised her that he alternately ignored and yelled at her, physically intimidated her at work and drove by her home, cut her position to part-time, and transferred her to a different troop.
The commanding officer, who is now retired and was cleared of wrongdoing in an internal investigation, did not return calls for this story.
Despite a discrimination commission ruling in favor of the State Police, a superior court judge ruled that Doty’s complaint “lays out more than enough factual support for claims of discrimination and retaliation against her former commander.” But the judge found that the conduct all fell outside the three-year statute of limitations for such claims.
“One common thread is that if they have the discretion, they’re going to be promoting their buddies,” said Gigi Tierney, a lawyer who represented Doty in her lawsuit against the department. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t work very well if you’re part of a minority or gender that hasn’t been part of the in crowd.”
Women and minority police officers have long struggled to have their complaints heard, some who study police culture say. Employment discrimination lawsuits against policing agencies are relatively common. In 2015, a judge ruled that the Boston Police Department’s promotional exam discriminated against minority officers.
“For as long as women and racial and ethnic minorities have been a part of police departments, there has been this denial of any internal problems,” said Delores Jones-Brown, who was the founding director of the John Jay College Center on Race, Crime and Justice and retired from the college in January. “If you’ve got troopers treating each other this way, can you imagine how they must be treating the public?”
Some civilians who filed suits said they were subjected to racial or sexual slurs by on-duty troopers.
In a 2012 lawsuit, a Nigerian immigrant, Onyema Anuonyemere, alleged that a trooper roughly arrested him on suspicion of scalping tickets outside Gillette Stadium before a Patriots game and called him a “terrorist,” a “nigger,” and a “monkey.”
The ticket scalping charge was never filed — Anuonyemere said he was at the game to watch his nephew play for the Jacksonville Jaguars and didn’t have tickets on him at the time of his arrest. He was later charged only with assault and battery on a police officer for allegedly shoving a trooper as he attempted to flee. He was convicted, but the conviction was overturned on appeal years later.
The trooper denied the allegations of abusive treatment, as did other troopers on the scene. But another trooper at the barracks said he overheard the accused trooper bragging about calling Anuonyemere the racial slur, and reported it.
Records show the state paid $45,000 to settle the suit last spring. Court documents show the trooper was docked three vacation days. But the conviction and charges that remained on Anuonyemere’s record for years made it impossible for him to find a job despite his advanced degree from Northeastern University, he alleged in court documents in 2015.
Lawyers for Anuonyemere and the trooper said their clients were barred from discussing the case by the terms of the settlement.
“For those cases that were resolved by settlement, the department agreed to the settlement for tactical and practical reasons,” Procopio said, addressing the cases generally.
In a 2013 lawsuit, a Harvard Law student alleged a trooper at Logan International Airport referred to him and a friend as “faggots” when the student went to lodge a complaint about another trooper who allegedly accosted him while he was loading his car. The lawsuit is pending.
“The culture in the State Police is that they protect one another,” said Howard Friedman, a Boston civil rights lawyer whose firm focuses on representing victims of police misconduct. He pointed to a pending criminal case against Trooper Robert Sundberg, who is charged with rape and several other felonies stemming from an allegedly abusive relationship with a woman who is also a trooper.
At a hearing last year, Sundberg drew support from a half-dozen fellow troopers — one of whom acknowledged on the stand that he’d seen Sundberg punch through the woman’s car window but did not report it because “we were all pretty intoxicated.” Sundberg is on unpaid leave from the department while the case is adjudicated.
“If the troopers can fill a courtroom for a trooper charged with rape, that tells you quite a lot,” Friedman said.
“The culture is 1950s frat boy,” said Robert Sinsheimer, a lawyer who is representing Trooper Daralyn Heywood in a pending sexual harassment lawsuit against the department. “Honest, hard-working, and professional 21st-century women who care about the law and the people they serve are shunted aside and diminished.”
Lawsuit seeks to advance diversity
In December, a group of women and minority troopers filed articles of incorporation with the secretary of state’s office, with a goal of promoting and advancing diversity in the State Police and pledging legal action to reach that goal.
The group’s president, Lisa Butner, is among four named plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the department, filed last year, that alleges a worsening pattern of discrimination in promotions that are not governed by exam scores, and in transfers to desirable specialty units within the department.
“Twenty years ago, the workplace was fairer than it is today,” Lisa Brodeur-McGan, the Springfield lawyer representing the troopers, wrote in a section of the complaint detailing the allegations of Sergeant Marion Fletcher, whose credentials include the George L. Hanna Memorial Award for Bravery and Trooper of the Year honors. Despite her resume, Fletcher was repeatedly passed over for specialty assignments — allegedly in favor of less qualified men.
The lawsuit, filed in Suffolk Superior Court, also names “similarly situated individuals” as plaintiffs — a precursor to a potential class action.
In a response to the complaint, State Police lawyers denied allegations of wrongdoing and claims that the plaintiffs were passed over in favor of less qualified candidates for promotions and transfers. In a statement released last fall, Procopio said the department intended to mount a vigorous defense.
Department statistics show that nearly 90 percent of the department’s sworn officers are white — a rate that has been nearly identical since at least 2008, court filings show — and an even larger portion are male. But the force is hardly alone in its lack of diversity.
Around the country, “state police continue to be the one policing agency that is overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male,” said Jones-Brown.
Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics show that Massachusetts State Police are roughly typical of other state police agencies. Though they appeared less racially diverse than the national average of all troopers in the 2013 survey, the general population of Massachusetts is also considerably less racially diverse than the national average. And the small percentage of troopers who are women — about 7 percent — was in line with other states.
Another former trooper who is black, Mark Archer, defended the department’s culture in an interview.
He said incidents of overt racism from early in his 20-year career had dried up by the end of his time in uniform. While his colleagues in the 1980s thought it was hilarious to give a white German shepherd to a black canine officer, “it changed over the years . . . I can only point to a few things that were done to me. ”
He said he would encourage his own children to join the force if they were so inclined.
But Archer acknowledged that the culture can be hard on those who are different.
To be a woman or a minority on the force, he said, “you have to have thick skin.”
A list of alleged indignities
Jim Jones was 20 when he joined the State Police, a foster kid from Dorchester who had already joined the Army and set his sights high.
During occasional deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, including while on leave from the State Police, Jones earned the Bronze Star, Meritorious Service, and Army Commendation medals. At home, as he climbed the ranks of the State Police, Jones received a master’s degree in criminal justice from Northeastern University and another master’s degree in public administration from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. He graduated from the FBI National Academy — all in pursuit of his goal of becoming the State Police’s first black colonel — its highest ranking officer.
He’d raised concerns about diversity on the force, and said he once pointed out to a superior officer that more than a dozen recent discretionary promotions — those not governed by promotional exams — had all been given to white males. But he said he was told that in each instance the best person for the job had been selected, and he walked away shaking his head.
“There’s no doubt that discrimination occurs” in the State Police, he said.
Still, it didn’t stop Jones’s rise through the ranks.
By 2014, he was a captain working out of a barracks north of Boston. And when an opportunity arose to swap posts with a captain in Troop D, closer to Jones’s home in Stoughton, he jumped at the chance to cut his commute. But from nearly the moment he arrived, Jones said, a major he barely knew seemed to despise him.
The major in charge of the troop, Anthony Thomas, declined to give Jones any real duties, Jones said. Instead of supervising important functions as he had in his previous troop, he spent his shifts driving around to traffic stops. It was sergeant’s work, he said, and the assignment proved he wasn’t valued as a captain. Thomas, through Procopio, declined to comment for this article.
The indignities piled up, Jones said: Thomas refused to give Jones a parking space at the troop headquarters where he was third in command, even though everyone else from the janitor on up had a reserved space. He was denied any overtime despite department rules that dictate it be fair and equitable; another captain at the troop piled up well over 100 hours, and he’d received zero. He was barred from the major and captains’ locker room, leaving him to change his clothes in his office or the hallway.
Eventually, he came to believe that the disparate treatment was based on his race.
“It was very subtle,” said Jones, who said he’d never been disciplined and had, until that point, advanced up the chain of command via exam scores that dictate promotions to many ranks, only to find himself shunned. “I don’t know what other motivation he’d have.”
Finally, Jones said, he filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination detailing the allegations.
“Major Thomas is a highly regarded member of the department’s command staff,” Procopio said in an e-mail. “His treatment of department members he supervises is fair and equitable, as determined not only by the department but by the MCAD.”
But the response to his complaint was swift, Jones said. He was offered another transfer, he said, but declined because he felt that would not solve the underlying problem. Thomas was ordered to correct the problems — overtime, parking space, locker room access, real duties, Jones said.
Within months, Jones was promoted to major, and he was asked to write a letter withdrawing his complaint. He did not, he said, but he did stop attending the hearings.
“I was promoted because I filed a complaint and they had to figure out a way to make it go away,” Jones said.
Procopio said the commission “found no probable cause of discrimination” in Jones’s case, though the department has not released the documents associated with his complaint. The commission found that Thomas’s decisions “were not racially motivated, but rather were made for legitimate reasons,” Procopio said. A Globe request for the discrimination commission documents is pending.
Thomas wasn’t punished, Jones said, “which does nothing for the next person, or the next person.”
That ate at him, he said. The job he was given at headquarters — paperwork, mostly — was favored by troopers padding their pensions and waiting to retire, he said. The career that had seemed so promising suddenly felt over.
“I did all that stuff,” Jones said — the advanced degrees, the FBI training, the promotional exams, “thinking, ‘maybe I’ll have an opportunity to be the first African-American colonel.’ ” Instead, last fall, he quietly resigned without telling the department why.
“Here’s a person who could quite likely have been the first black person to be the colonel. But they’re not interested in diversity,” said Larry Ellison, president of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers.
Questions on the interview process
Jones’s career sputtered in the face of what he said could only have been racism; Orlando Riley’s never began.
Riley, an officer with the New Bedford Police Department since 2002, hoped to join the state’s most prestigious law enforcement arm when he took the written examination for the State Police Academy in 2009. The decorated city cop earned a perfect score, and in 2011 he received an offer to complete the application process and enter the academy as a trainee.
Riley would have been joining a force that is now only 5 percent black, with no minority officers in the five highest ranks.
He completed his application, his fitness test, and his oral interview, then his medical and psychological screenings. But when a white trooper was assigned to conduct Riley’s required background check, things fell apart. The interview “was accusatory and suspicious,” Riley alleged in a federal complaint filed last year. The trooper, the complaint alleges, “repeated the same questions about whether Riley gambled numerous times, in a disbelieving tone, with only slight variations, as if he did not believe Riley’s (truthful) denials.”
In court filings, State Police denied Riley’s allegations. The case is in the discovery phase.
The trooper, according to Riley’s complaint, allegedly denigrated Riley’s home and neighborhood and accused him of concealing a New Bedford internal investigation that Riley allegedly didn’t learn he was the subject of until later. He also allegedly accused Riley of lying on his application by not listing the New Bedford police union as a trade organization (it’s not) and for offering a forged high school diploma — all erroneously, according to the complaint. When the trooper visited Riley’s home as part of the background check, he again informed Riley that he lived in a not-so-nice neighborhood, the complaint alleged.
On his report, and on another report after Riley appealed, the trooper concluded that Riley had been “untruthful,” effectively scuttling his application.
White candidates were facing a far less aggressive application process, the lawsuit alleged, although three white candidates also failed to make it to the academy after being examined by the same trooper. Riley alleged that the backgrounds of the other troopers who were denied entry were clearly disqualifying compared with his own. They lacked police experience, had bad driving records, poor references, and failed drug tests, he alleged. One hadn’t filed income taxes. Another had been charged with OUI and failed to complete a court-ordered safety class.
In an answer to the complaint filed by the attorney general’s office in April, State Police denied Riley’s characterization of the interview and denied that he had provided documentation to clear up questions about his background.
In 2012, Riley filed a discrimination charge with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging that State Police had treated him worse than non-African-American candidates. He was granted permission to sue, and the case is pending.
Procopio said the department would not comment on the specifics of pending cases, but said State Police are committed to finding minority candidates.
“We aggressively seek to recruit a diverse pool of candidates to take the exam to become a Massachusetts state trooper,” Procopio said. “We present information and speak to candidates at career fairs and meetings in communities of color.”
Of about 8,500 civil service applicants who have chosen to have their test scores included on the State Police hiring list, about 2,350 are nonwhite and some 1,350 are female. Though data for earlier exams were not available, Procopio said the numbers appeared to represent a large increase.
For women, who today account for only about 5 percent of the nearly 2,200 sworn officers in the State Police, the barracks have long posed particular problems.
Lisa Butner first sued the department in 1998, alleging that women who became pregnant were forced into reduced duty or suspended entirely, were barred from wearing uniforms, and were subjected to department medical examinations that a judge derided as “a troubling unprofessional charade.” Butner and her codefendants prevailed, winning a seven-figure judgment.
More than a decade after that case concluded, Butner, one of just seven black women on the force today, and three other troopers filed a lawsuit alleging discrimination in promotions. In court documents, Butner, Deborah Ryan, Marion Fletcher, and Cleveland Coats, a black man, detailed years of applying for and losing jobs to less qualified white men, and described jobs that were filled before they were ever posted — an alleged violation of department policy.
State Police disregard for the rules “has contributed to the significant disparity among women and minorities” on the force, the court documents allege.
“Pervasive discrimination,” the lawsuit alleged, “has created an environment preventing women from advancing despite their work ethic, efforts and performance, and has discouraged women from entering this career.”
The lawsuit seeks to tie statistical evidence — the entire department employs three women and no minorities at the rank of captain or above — to the plaintiffs’ experiences seeking promotions and plum assignments. But some women say they have faced something more insidious.
Daralyn Heywood, a State Police sergeant and a veteran of the Army National Guard and the Massachusetts Air National Guard, sued in October, alleging a pattern of sexual harassment by a lieutenant, Kevin Buckley, who was her supervisor at the barracks in Yarmouth.
Buckley, Heywood alleged, described sexual encounters with another sergeant she said was his mistress — an attempt, she came to believe, to draw her into a sexual relationship. Fearing retaliation, Heywood initially felt powerless to stop him from discussing his sex life, she alleged. Finally, though, she told him she didn’t want to get involved with his personal problems “and would no longer tolerate discussions concerning his sex life or his affair,” the documents allege.
Immediately, her career seemed to go south, she alleged.
“Buckley began to unfairly and openly criticize Ms. Heywood’s work and overturn her supervisory decisions,” the complaint alleges. Soon, she was transferred to the midnight shift and continued to endure criticism from Buckley. When she finally filed a sexual harassment report against Buckley in December 2015, she alleged, she was ostracized. The internal Harassment Investigations Unit handles sexual harassment complaints between State Police personnel.
The harassment unit’s investigation cleared Buckley, according to his lawyer, Timothy Burke.
“I can say with certainty that this case was investigated very thoroughly, and Lieutenant Buckley, my client, was exonerated on all counts and allegations,” Burke said.
After the internal investigation cleared Buckley, Heywood then sued and the case is now before a Suffolk Superior Court judge, who is weighing a motion to dismiss.
“Everyone looks the other way when the happily married lieutenant openly sleeps with a female sergeant,” said Sinsheimer, the lawyer representing Heywood. “He even brags about it.”
Burke, who has represented numerous troopers in a variety of cases — including Butner in her 2003 lawsuit — said State Police have made “truly significant advances” in investigating claims of harassment and discrimination.
“That, 20 years ago, may not have been the case,” Burke said. “To their credit, the State Police have made tremendous strides.”
Heywood’s experience is familiar, said Denise Nation, an associate professor and coordinator of the Justice Studies Program at Winston-Salem State University, who has researched police culture.
“Female officers will tell you that they experience sexism all the time on the force from male officers,” Nation said — something even seasoned male officers acknowledge. “Females are seen as outsiders within the occupation.”
A gay trooper pleads for change
Derek Langton was not the first gay trooper in the nation’s oldest state law enforcement organization.
But when he joined the force in the 1990s, another gay trooper gave him some advice, Langton said in an interview: “Keep it under wraps. Remain anonymous. Blend in.”
But word got out — Langton made no effort to hide the fact that he was gay — and when Langton and his longtime boyfriend planned to marry in California, he decided to invite some of his colleagues to the wedding. He’d hoped it would help people understand that they weren’t so different; instead, he said, it started a spiral of harassment and bullying that eventually ended his career.
Not long after the wedding, Langton found about 20 Blow Pop lollipops under the seat of his cruiser, he said. Another trooper allegedly loudly made a suggestive phone call, ostensibly about spark plugs but clearly a reference to Langton’s husband’s Asian ancestry. Troopers joked about Langton getting down on his knees in the bathroom stall and asked Langton — the supply officer — for special condoms. One day, a condom showed up in Langton’s own locker.
One trooper, Langton alleged, made a habit of glancing suggestively at Langton’s crotch whenever they spoke; another allegedly grabbed his genitals whenever they spoke. They called his husband his wife and asked about his “maiden name.”
When Langton injured his back, a sergeant asked him repeatedly if he’d had a sharp pain “in the rear.” He started wearing headphones at work so he couldn’t hear the taunts.
Langton went on injury leave in 2009, but he alleged that his colleagues continued to harass him at home.
Langton never returned. He filed a discrimination complaint and then a lawsuit. In 2015, he accepted a small cash settlement — $10,000, records show — and a meeting with high-ranking officers during which he urged policy changes. Some, he said, were implemented.
“The people who are experiencing sexual harassment? They just want it to stop,” Langton said. “I’d say things are changing, but not as fast as we would like it to.”
Langton said that problems within the State Police still exist in small pockets, and the close quarters and the long careers can wear on people.
“I don’t want to say there’s a ‘bro’ culture and the women will be left out. I don’t want to sound that cynical — but it is there in small cliques,” he said. “Whether you’re doing it to someone because they’re gay or black . . . that’s not your decision to make. I think it’s wrong.”