A Fort Worth police sergeant has filed a federal lawsuit against the city, police Chief Jeff Halstead and a retired sergeant, accusing them of racial discrimination and harassment, and of retaliating against him while he worked in the traffic division.
Sgt. Delbert Johnson, a 24-year veteran of the department, was one of three black officers who filed grievances with the city’s Human Resources Department in 2013, prompting the city to hire Coleman & Associates Consultants to investigate.
The Coleman report, 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.
Johnson’s suit, filed in federal court Wednesday, echoes many complaints he made in the 2013 grievance to the city.
The suit names the city, Halstead and retired Sgt. Dave Stamp, a former supervisor in the traffic division, as defendants.
Halstead said Wednesday he could not comment on the lawsuit. Stamp could not be reached to comment.
A city spokeswoman said the city's legal department had not been served with the suit and therefore she could not comment.
Johnson’s attorney told the Star-Telegram the suit was filed “because of the incredibly harsh treatment that Sgt. Johnson had to endure for several years.”
“It was horrific what he went though starting in 2010,” attorney David Watsky said.
Watsky said the suit was filed after he and attorney Bob Gorsky sent a letter to Fort Worth City Manager David Cooke on Oct. 27 that was never acknowledged. The letter outlined Johnson’s claims and stated that if they could not come to a resolution, a lawsuit would be filed, he said.
“This was an ongoing situation that he tolerated, and I think the triggering point for him was the Coleman report coming out and confirming the things he was contending all along,” Watsky said. “It was confirmation that the things that was happening to him was totally inappropriate.”
An offensive snowman
In the suit, Johnson says his career took a downturn in 2010 after he was alerted by officer James Dunn about an offensive picture that had been left on an office printer. The picture, taken by Sgt. Mike Cagle, shows Sgt. Ann Gates holding a noose around a snowman’s neck, the lawsuit states.
“As African-Americans, both Officer Dunn and Sgt. Johnson were offended by the connotations that picture brought up,” the suit states.
After someone other than Johnson complained to Internal Affairs, Gates and Cagle were investigated and admonished. Upset about the discipline, the suit states, Stamp told other supervisors that they should watch out out for Johnson and that he could not be trusted.
“Sgt. Stamp then commenced a blatant and unrelenting campaign to ruin Sgt. Johnson and his career with the FWPD,” the suit says.
The campaign included public criticism of Johnson to employees, conspiring with others to boycott meetings and assignments overseen by Johnson, and trying to persuade other employees not to work on a major grant overseen by Johnson, the suit says.
“The worst part, however, was when Sgt. Stamp sent an anonymous letter in the latter part of 2012 to Chief Jeff Halstead accusing Sgt. Johnson of the criminal act of stealing money from the Federal Grant that he had been in charge of,” the suit says.
That letter, which the suit says Stamp later admitted sending, prompted audits and investigations by the department’s special investigation unit and grant administration office and the Texas Department of Transportation.
“Despite these investigations completely clearing Sgt. Johnson of wrongdoing, Sgt. Stamp continued his false and malicious accusations against Sgt. Johnson,” the suit says. “It was disclosed to Sgt. Johnson that Sgt. Stamp was now saying that the only reason that Sgt. Johnson was not arrested was because he was black.”
Johnson, in turn, filed the grievance with the department’s human resources department.
‘Way too little, way too late’
The suit states that Halstead finally agreed to meet with Johnson on June 28, 2013, to discuss the matter and indicated he would “make it right.”
Instead, Halstead “discriminated and retaliated” against Johnson by transferring him out of traffic and to a different shift in the west division, the suit says.
That change has cost Johnson his ability to earn overtime and the loss of a part-time second job he’d had for 11 years, costing him about $50,000 in lost income, the suit says
Halstead also prevented Johnson from transferring into an open jail sergeant position.
In April, the suit states, Johnson was transferred back to the traffic division after two other black officers — Lt. E.G. Edney and Sgt. Dwayne Dalco — filed their own grievances and the Coleman investigation was begun.
The suit points to a YouTube video of Halstead, posted just before a summary of the Coleman report was released to the media, in which the chief publicly apologized.
“In the video that was posted on YouTube, Chief Halstead admitted that Sgt. Johnson and Lt. Edney were discriminated against because of the color of their skin,” the suit states.
Watsky said Halstead’s public apology via You Tube was “way too little, way too late.”
“The punitive nature of what they did to him . . . An apology is clearly not enough for what they put him through for the last four years, and it is still going on,” Watsky said.
Even upon returning to the traffic division, the harassment continued when Deputy Chief Martin Salinas made it clear he didn’t want Johnson there, the suit states.
“Instead of welcoming Sgt. Johnson back, it was ‘We don’t want you, we don’t like you,’” Watsky said.
Watsky said department leaders have bullied Johnson since he first brought up discrimination in the workplace.
“A police department the size of the city of Fort Worth should know that there is no place for retaliation in the work environment,” he said.
Deanna Boyd, 817-390-7655
Monica S. Nagy, 817-390-7792