Ten months after a federal jury found that Massachusetts State Police discriminated against a black recruit, denying him entrance to its academy because of his race, the trooper who conducted the background investigation that triggered the rejection is still vetting recruits.
In December, jurors ruled that Orlando Riley, a veteran New Bedford police officer, had been barred from the State Police Academy because he is black and awarded him $130,000.
The case largely turned on Trooper Robert Lima and the background investigation he had performed on Riley.
Riley said Lima denigrated his New Bedford neighborhood, expressed disbelief that he did not gamble, and accused Riley of falsifying a letter confirming that he had graduated from high school.
His lawyers argued Riley was treated differently than similarly situated white candidates.
A jury found Riley’s claims persuasive enough to decide in his favor, and a judge in April ordered the State Police to take him on as a recruit.
At the time of Riley’s background investigation in 2011, Lima was not a full-time member of the Certification Unit, which conducts background investigations of State Police recruits; his regular assignment was to the State Police Detective Unit for Bristol County.
Lima joined the Certification Unit in 2018 — well after Riley’s lawyers had laid out evidence in court documents that they say showed Lima had treated white candidates differently than Riley and had sought to create pretexts for his rejection.
The State Police say Lima did nothing wrong, despite the jury verdict, which the agency did not appeal. In court, the agency emphasized that Lima had uncovered disqualifying information for multiple white State Police candidates the same year.
“The department maintains that no discrimination occurred and that Trooper Lima performed his duty appropriately. The fact that we have accepted the jury verdict does not change our position,” State Police spokesman David Procopio said.
State Representative Russell E. Holmes, Democrat of Mattapan and one of the state’s few black elected officials, called the decision to have Lima serve in the unit “upsetting and very disappointing.”
“It has been proved that his implicit biases led to someone not getting hired who should have been hired,” Holmes said.
The decision by Colonel Kerry A. Gilpin, the head of the State Police, is particularly disappointing, Holmes said, given the continuing challenge the department has had diversifying its ranks, which are overwhelmingly male and white.
“You do want people who are going to be looking for a diverse set of candidates and not someone who has already been proven through a process to discriminate against people of color,” he said.
Riley, a longtime New Bedford officer, aced the State Police written examination in 2009 and received an offer to complete the application process two years later. He completed health screenings but said that Lima, who is white, treated him like a criminal suspect.
For instance, Lima claimed that Riley had lied to cover up being expelled for academic reasons from one high school he attended, according to court documents. Over the course of the case, evidence showed two employees of the high school in question denied telling Lima he had been kicked out for academic reasons, refuting the trooper’s statements that both had backed up his version of events, according to court documents. Riley said he left the school in question for financial reasons.
Riley’s lawyers also pointed out that their client’s academic record showed he had made up previously failed courses “and was not forced out academically.”
Lima wrote in a report that Riley appeared to be timid, untruthful, and accepting of “mediocrity.”
The State Police declined to make Lima or Gilpin available for an interview.
In a statement, Procopio said that both “the Superior Court and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, in prior rulings, found that no discrimination occurred in Mr. Riley’s disqualification for untruthfulness, consistent with the findings and ongoing position of the State Police.”
Ellen J. Messing, a lawyer representing Riley, called the State Police response “extremely misleading.” The Superior Court ruling was on a narrow procedural issue and did not raise the issue of discrimination, she said, noting that that case was brought by a different lawyer.
In the MCAD case, Riley represented himself, going up against the State Police lawyers in a process far less rigorous than the seven-day trial before a jury in federal court, which was decided in his favor, she said.
As for the timing of Lima’s assignment to the Certification Unit, Messing said that even if the State Police felt justified in ignoring the evidence in the federal case, it is unreasonable for there to have been no action since.
“They’re supposed to believe in the law and following the law, and here is kind of the pinnacle of the legal system — the jury trial — and they’re just kind of thumbing their nose at it,” she said. The State Police are sending the message that “we know better than the jury. We’re right, and the jury is wrong.”
Moreover, the fact that the State Police did not appeal the jury’s decision “makes it clear that they didn’t have a basis to question the jury result.”
A spokeswoman for Governor Charlie Baker declined to comment.
Action in the case didn’t end with the December jury decision.
Riley pushed to have the State Police take him on as a recruit after he won the $130,000 civil verdict. The agency didn’t want him, sticking by its view that he had been deceptive during the application process.
The judge directed the State Police to put Riley in the next training class, which has not yet begun, according to Riley’s lawyers.
Earlier this month, the same judge ordered Massachusetts to hand over more than $1 million in attorney’s fees to Riley’s team.
“The taxpayers have to pay a million dollars because the State Police fought very aggressively against this case and against Officer Reilly,” Messing said. “That’s the price of racism.”