Gerry Pickens, a former officer with the Orting Police Department in Washington state, is the impetus of an eruption of sorts in the small town after he filed a lawsuit alleging racism from his colleagues, the Washington Post reports.
Pickens claims that he was the butt of racist jokes during the first year of his job with the department, and alleges he was unfairly dismissed at the end of his probation period, thus sparking the filing of a $5 million damages claim.
Orting, a city that is 87 percent White, hired Pickens in the fall of 2013, which made him the department’s first Black hire. The move was unprecedented, given the fact that Orting had the unsavory nickname “The White City,” due to the dearth of people of color living there.
The Washington Post profiled Pickens and focused on the racial tensions underfoot in Orting. Pickens, now 28, alleges a number of offenses and discriminatory mistreatment at the hands of his fellow officers. Pickens, a veteran officer, worked in Atlanta prior to Orting, but was a native of the Pacific Northwest and wanted to raise his family there.
Pickens’ hiring was celebrated as a novel achievement, but it quickly deteriorated when it appeared that the young officer didn’t have the backing of his superiors or the town he was sworn to protect.
Pickens claims he was given an older squad car than the other officers and was suspended for one week over an unconfirmed allegation that he worked out in a gym where he wasn’t a member, as told to the Post. Pickens was laid off at the end of his probationary period for what Orting Police Chief Bill Drake called “unsatisfactory performance.”
At the top of the year, vandals spray painted Pickens’ SUV after he says word got out that he was consulting legal avenues to address his firing. The vandals painted the “n-word” on one side of the vehicle, with the words “Sue Chief And Pay” on the other, as reported by KIRO-TV.
At the time, Pickens hadn’t filed any claims against the city. In February, surrounded by members of the NAACP, Pickens announced in Tacoma that he was set to file a wrongful termination suit against Orting if officials there decided not to pay the damages in the allotted 90-day time frame.
Orting Mayor Joachim (Joe) Pestinger says that Pickens’ lawsuit is twice that of the city’s budget and vowed not to settle one dime over what he feels is a false allegation.
Citizens in Orting have shown support for Pickens, but there is an overall sentiment of resentment that rings loudest of all. Much of the inflammatory war of words has taken place on Facebook and across social media, with some of the vitriol visiting Pickens and his supporters.