The city of Denton has agreed to pay $68,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a former police department recruiter who said she was retaliated against because she funneled too many African-American candidates into the pipeline for jobs with the Denton Police Department.
The Denton City Council approved the settlement offer designed to end the lawsuit earlier this month.
Denton Police Department recruiter and background investigator Cleopatra Birckbichler, who is African-American, was accused by white officers of favoring unqualified black job applicants over more qualified white applicants, she said in the lawsuit.
White police officers complained during an Oct. 28, 2015, “town hall meeting” hosted by former Police Chief Lee Howell that Birckbichler was hiring too many black employees and asked that she be removed from her position.
Birckbichler countered that she did not make any hiring decisions.
On Jan. 4, 2018, Howell told Birckbichler that she was being removed from her position because she was not a “team player” and that the Denton Municipal Police Association, of which Birckbichler was president, “went to the City Manager” to complain and she should have steered them toward Howell, the lawsuit said.
Howell also complained that Birckbichler sent him emails about accusations that she was making race-based hiring decisions, when he asked her not to do so in writing, according to the lawsuit.
Birckbichler’s last day working as a recruiter and background investigator was Jan. 29, 2018. She took medical leave until her return on May 14, 2018, when she assumed new duties as school resource officer, the lawsuit stated. Birckbichler retired from the Denton Police Department Dec. 31, according to a city official.
Howell, who was not named in the lawsuit, said he was not aware that litigation had been filed until recently and had not formed a response to the allegations made against him.
City Councilwoman Deb Armintor recused herself from the 4-1 vote approving the settlement offer, saying she had a conflict of interest. Armintor said she disagreed with some of the conclusions in the city’s investigation of Birckbichler’s claims and had asked Birckbichler about her Denton police department experiences.
Armintor said she was told by city officials that it was not a good idea for her to communicate with someone suing the city.
“I was really pretty horrified that the investigation concluded that her [Birckbichler’s] complaints of racism were wrong and that it made her out to be hysterical,“ Armintor said. “I may have even used the terms hatchet job and cover-up.”
During the Jan. 8 City Council meeting, current Denton Police Chief Frank Dixon, who is black, presented a departmental review prepared by the Police Executive Research Forum, or PERF.
The review concluded that some in the department believe that cronyism is a problem at the Denton Police Department, especially with respect to promotions and special assignments. The report also highlighted a lack of internal communication from the department’s senior leaders regarding the hiring of minorities.
Police department leaders examined the issue and found that unfair practices had not been used to give preferential treatment to minority applicants in the hiring process, the report stated. PERF also reported that the previous chief, Howell, led “town hall meetings” in an effort to address the race issue and dispel misconceptions.
“However, this continues to be an underlying issue in the department,” the PERF report concluded.
Armintor said she agreed with the findings in the PERF report and encouraged the city to go further with reform. Most of the PERF recommendations have been put into policy, but a lot more is needed, Armintor said.
The investigation conducted by the city was flawed, she said.
“We investigated ourselves and found there was no racism,” she said.
Willie Hudspeth, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Denton branch, said Howell made an effort to try to smooth over the misconceptions about race and hiring but the people involved in the controversy were too far apart for compromise.
Hudspeth said he believed Howell was simply unable to adequately address the racism in the department.
Howell “was trying to help one side and keep the other side happy,” Hudspeth said. “That was not going to happen.”
The lawsuit noted that discrimination existed in the department before Birckbichler’s hiring.
When she was hired for the position in 2002, then-Police Chief Charles Wiley said her predecessor “explicitly refused to hire black people,” she said in the lawsuit.
Howell told Birckbichler there was racism within the police department and that complaints about her seemed racially motivated, but no formal investigation occurred, she said in the suit. She said she complained to the city’s human resources department about the accusations made by white officers, and Howell did nothing when the complaints were presented to him.
In November 2015, Denton City Manager George Campbell took complaints from Birckbichler about Howell’s inaction, racism in the department and accusations about her work and promised her a follow-up call, but she never heard back from him, she said in the suit.
She said the next qualified applicant available for an open position was an African-American, but Howell told her to delay hiring that prospect because Denton had just hired an African-American officer.
“You know how [Assistant Chief] Roger [White] is going to act” if the department hires another African-American candidate, Howell reportedly told her.
Howell resigned in August to lead the Saginaw Police Department. Denton Police Deputy Chief Roger White and Deputy Chief Scott Fletcher submitted their resignations around the same time, according to a Denton police spokesman.
Birckbichler, her attorney Austin Campbell and attorneys representing the city declined to discuss the settlement. During a presentation to City Council on Jan. 8, Assistant City Attorney Stephanie Lang told city officials that in effect there was a gag order concerning the settlement offer.
Dixon and members of the Denton POA did not return calls and emails seeking comment.
City Councilman John Ryan said the problems in the police department were left to fester for too long and got worse.
“I don’t believe it was something that was that bad,” Ryan said. “We didn’t get there overnight and this will not be solved overnight. It will take a long time to regain trust.”