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Former Brookline officer settles racial discrimination complaint

Brookline police officers Prentice Pilot, Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, and Brooks Ames talk at Brookline Town Hall.
Brookline police officers Prentice Pilot, Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, and Brooks Ames talk at Brookline Town Hall.John Blanding/Globe Staff

A former police officer who alleged that he was racially harassed and targeted in the Brookline Police Department has quietly reached a $180,000 settlement with the town, according to documentation the Globe obtained this week.

Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, the former officer, will get a one-time check for $135,000. The rest will pay his attorney’s fees, the document said.

“It is hereby stipulated and agreed. . . that plaintiff Estifanos Zerai-Misgun’s claims in this action are hereby dismissed with prejudice,’’ the agreement said.

Details of the confidential deal, reached in October, only came to light this week after a public records request by the Globe.

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Zerai-Misgun and another former officer, Prentice Pilot — both black — were fired in April for refusing to come to work after they reported they were repeated targets of racial epithets and harassment on the force. The men said they were ostracized after reporting the conduct to superiors, including to former Brookline police chief Daniel C. O’Leary, and saying they felt unsafe on the job.

O’Leary, who retired last month, had contended that he worked actively to address the men’s concerns.

The case elevated racial issues in Brookline, particularly in public safety, and put an unfavorable focus on the progressive town of about 59,000 people.

Officials at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice — which brought the officers’ case — said they were pleased with the Zerai-Misgun settlement. Pilot’s attorney, Oren Sellstrom, who is also the committee’s litigation director, said his client’s case is ongoing.

“Clearly the town recognizes that they had legal exposure in light of the racially discriminatory work environment that they allowed to go unchecked,’’ said Sellstrom.

Zerai-Misgun and Pilot described in their 2016 race discrimination lawsuit a series of racist comments and behavior within the predominantly white department that the former officers said went unpunished. They said the town has tried to “sweep the allegations under the rug” rather than addressing racial issues.

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The men said they refused to work because they feared for their safety. The town accused them of insubordination because they ignored an order to report to duty. In April, the Brookline selectmen accepted a hearing officer’s recommendation to fire the two men.

Their lawsuit named as defendants the five members of the Select Board, and O’Leary.

Town counsel Joslin Ham Murphy said after the officers’ lawsuit, “centered on unacceptable workplace bantering and the alleged use of a racial slur,” the town undertook “a prompt and robust response” to their concerns.

That included, Murphy said, independent investigations of their complaints by “a qualified outside investigator,” implicit bias and antidiscrimination training for the entire Brookline Police Department, and modifications to the town’s antidiscrimination policy to ensure prompt and complete investigations of workplace complaints.

“In our view, the settlement that was reached with Mr. Zerai-Misgun reflects favorably upon the comprehensive work that has been undertaken by the town to ensure that its workplace is a safe and welcoming environment for all town employees,’’ Murphy said in a statement.

In the agreement, the town said it would work to amend Zerai-Migun’s employment record from “terminated” to “resigned.”

In exchange, Zerai-Misgun said he would withdraw all pending grievances with the town. It forbids him from seeking retirement benefits for his work and from getting another job with the town.

The settlement document included a letter from Zerai-Misgun to O’Leary that acknowledged the personal toll the case and noted his respect and admiration for his former colleagues.

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“I received many expressions of warm support from my colleagues (including supervisors). . . after they learned about my experience,’’ Zerai-Misgun wrote.

Zerai-Misgun thanked O’Leary for his efforts in addressing the grievances and said he now understands that the chief “did follow through” by raising the issues during roll calls.

He explained that he was reluctant to return to work because he said he was afraid that he would feel uncomfortable after his complaint became highly publicized and controversial.

“But I recognize that I would have not been in danger by returning,’’ Zerai-Misgun wrote in the letter. “I appreciate that you and my colleagues would not tolerate treatment that jeopardize the well being of a fellow officer.”

Neil Wishinsky, chairman of the town’s Select Board, said he was pleased with the terms of the settlement, Zerai-Misgun’s public expression of gratitude, and his acknowledgment that “factors other than an unsafe workplace caused him to decide against returning to work” as a Brookline police officer.

“I sincerely hope that the resolution of his lawsuit against the town in this manner will permit Mr. Zerai-Misgun to move forward with the knowledge that he was a valued member of the Brookline Police Department and that we wish him well,’’ Wishinsky said Friday.

Brookline also faces another discrimination lawsuit from a former town employee. Earlier this month, a federal magistrate judge ruled that former Brookline firefighter Gerald Alston, a black man, could pursue his civil rights lawsuit against 10 current and former Brookline town officials.

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Alston, who served 11 years in the Brookline Fire Department, alleges that he was retaliated against and wrongfully terminated because he objected to the promotion of his supervisor who called him the N-word on a recorded voice mail, according to Brooks Ames, an attorney for the Brookline Justice League, which represents Alston.

“My heart really goes out to [Estifanos]. Nobody deserves to be treated the way he was treated by the town of Brookline,’’ Ames said. “Mr. Alston is looking forward to telling his story to a jury.”


Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com.