WASHINGTON (AP) — A federal appeals court on Friday revived a discrimination lawsuit brought by more than 200 black police officers who claim they were mistreated by white supervisors with the U.S. Capitol Police.
The black officers had sued in 2001, charging white senior officers had created a hostile work environment by regularly referring to them with derogatory terms like “gangsters” and in some cases, denying them promotions to the rank of sergeant or lieutenant.
A lower court judge had dismissed the case, saying most of the black officers had not fully pursued mediation before filing the lawsuit. A three-judge appeals panel on Friday reversed that part of the judge’s decision and said they could sue.
“It’s a great day, and I’m thankful,” said Sharon Blackmon-Malloy, a leader of the black officers who retired as a lieutenant on the force two years ago.
Eleven officers in the suit have died since the case started, she said, “and hopefully now we’ll have an opportunity to receive some of the justice that they fought for so dearly all these years.”
Capitol police form a highly visible presence in Washington, responsible for protecting congressional buildings, as well as lawmakers and visitors to Congress; the discrimination case centered more on what went on behind closed doors within the force, however.
“The Capitol Police management identified the leading black officers in the ranks and nastily attacked them, called them out unfairly,” said attorney Joseph Gebhardt. “They used really bad language all the time. They called the black officers hucks, they called them gangsters to their face.”
One officer claimed a noose — a symbol of black lynching — was left on his locker, said Gebhardt, who represents the suing officers.
Gebhardt said the 26-page appeals court opinion revives the claims of about 270 black officers, more than half of whom are still on the job.
A spokeswoman for the Capitol Police said the agency does not comment on pending litigation. A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s office that argued the case said they were still reviewing the opinion and declined to comment.
For most of the officers, the judges found, “nothing in the record described herein suggests (they) did not proceed in good faith.”
The legal dispute centered around a little-known part of government called the Office of Compliance, which handles discrimination claims brought by congressional or legislative branch employees — and whether the officers’ discussions with the Office of Compliance amounted to a genuine effort to resolve their complaints through mediation before proceeding to the courts.