A fired Fort Worth police sergeant who was found not guilty in October on accusations that he stole four pairs of Nike sneakers and a video game from a drug dealer has filed a federal lawsuit against the city and former Police Chief Jeff Halstead.
Antoine J. Williams alleges that he was the victim of race discrimination, harassment and a hostile work environment in the lawsuit, filed Thursday by Dallas attorney Ray Jackson.
Halstead, who retired in January, did not immediately return messages Friday seeking comment.
City Attorney Sarah Fullenwider said in an email Friday morning that the city had not yet been served with the lawsuit, “so we have no comment at this time.”
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Williams was fired by the Police Department in May 2014, two months after a Tarrant County grand jury indicted him on a charge of theft between $500 and $1,500. Because Williams was a public servant at the time of the alleged theft, he faced an enhanced punishment of up to two years’ confinement in a state jail and a $10,000 fine.
Williams, who had been with the department since 1999, appealed his firing. A hearing on the matter is still pending.
The alleged theft occurred Oct. 16, 2013, while Williams was supervising the search of an east Fort Worth residence of a known drug dealer.
Williams was accused of taking four pair of Nike Shoes and a Grand Theft Auto V video game from the house, then never logging or turning the property in before getting off work in the early morning hours of Oct. 17, 2013. He was arrested that same month.
In his October trial, jurors watched a video of Williams’ interview with special investigations detectives in which he acknowledged having the items but said his failure to log them in was just “a dumb mistake.”
They also heard testimony from another Fort Worth supervisor, Sgt. Kevin Fitchett, who testified that narcotics officers often took things from drug dealers that they didn’t log into evidence immediately. Fitchett testified that such a delay, however, was a violation of policy that might be punished internally but was not considered criminal activity.
The jury deliberated more than five hours over two days before returning the not guilty verdict. Williams is now seeking to have his criminal records expunged.
Williams’ side ofalleged theft
In the lawsuit, Williams states that he was given permission by Lt. Vance Keyes to seize the property for immediate use by undercover officers.
He said he had taken the items home after working into the early morning hours and put them in his house for safekeeping with the intention of returning them to the Police Department later that day.
The lawsuits says Williams’s wife, upon seeing the boxes of shoes in the house, believed they were her husbands and put them in the couple’s bedroom.
Williams said he was almost at work that same day when he realized he had left the property behind. The suit states he intended to get the items later in the day but was called to the special investigation unit officer before that could happen.
While speaking with a detective there, he received a phone call from his wife alerting him that officers were outside their home, taking photographs.
The lawsuit states that the investigation began after an officer involved in the search alerted Keyes to Williams’ alleged actions. Despite approving Williams taking of the shoes, the lawsuit states, Keyes alerted a captain and contacted the special investigations unit.
The lawsuit points out the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure gives officers 72 hours to seal any evidence and place it into the property room, and department standard operating procedures gave officers five working days to complete seizure paperwork.
Williams “was not even given 24 hours before search warrants were issued,” the lawsuit states.
Allegations of disparate treatment
The lawsuit alleges that non-African-American officers in similar situations as Williams received different treatment.
“There are two cases where white officers took evidence home or kept for personal use but they were never arrested or even charged with a criminal offense,” the lawsuit states. “Under Chief Halstead’s tenure as chief, African-American officers have been charged with crimes while white officers who were alleged to have done the same thing were given little to no discipline.”
As examples, the lawsuits alleges one sergeant was only transferred after he took a blender and used it at his desk for weeks.
The lawsuit also alleges Sgt. Steven Benjamin — the internal investigator in Williams’ case — received a 16-day suspension for taking drugs from a warrant location home.
Civil Service records obtained by the Star-Telegram Friday, however, show Benjamin had been given a three-day suspension in 1998 by then-Chief Thomas Windham for not immediately turning in a sealed envelope of evidence from a narcotics search warrant, instead placing it in his unsecured work mailbox while he went out to eat with other officers.
According to a disciplinary letter, Benjamin forgot about the evidence in his mailbox until being contacted the next day by supervisors inquiring why he hadn’t turned the evidence in. As a result of the evidence being turned in a day late, the Tarrant County district attorney’s office dismissed the case against the arrested person because the chain of custody had been compromised, the letter states.
A 16-day suspension in lieu of termination received by Benjamin in 1996, civil service records show, involved allegations that he failed to obey a lieutenant’s orders to log and turn in a seized ax to the property room.
The lawsuit points out that Williams and Benjamin had an “unpleasant history” stemming from the internal affairs unit’s investigation of executive officers with the Fort Worth Black Law Enforcement Officers Associations. Williams was a member of the association’s executive board that filed complaints alleging race-based discriminatory and retaliatory treatment and harassment by the chief and others in the department, the suit states.
As a result of such complaints, the city hired an outside consultant to investigate. The report by Coleman & Associates, released in August, found no hard evidence of racial discrimination but did find instances of hostile and harassing behavior that was not stopped by department leaders.
Since December, four other black officers with the department have filed federal lawsuits against the city and Halstead. Jackson is also representing three of those officers.
Williams is seeking a jury trial and actual, compensatory and punitive damages.
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655