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An Inside Look At An Ohio Police Force’s Race Problem

A white cop joked about bringing explosives to a Black Lives Matter protest in Columbus with no consequences. A black cop joked about ‘black on black’ crime and may be fired.

Lt. Melissa McFadden
Melissa McFadden/City of Columbus

An Inside Look At An Ohio Police Force’s Race Problem

A white cop joked about bringing explosives to a Black Lives Matter protest in Columbus with no consequences. A black cop joked about ‘black on black’ crime and may be fired.

“Anybody know where I can get some C-4???” asked Trent Taylor, a white police officer in Columbus, Ohio, commenting on a fellow officer’s Facebook post about a police shooting protest in July 2016. The post was reported. But Taylor told investigators that his reference to explosives was meant to be “humorous,” and the complaint was dismissed as “unfounded.” The year before, Taylor had been involved in a fatal shooting of a Black suspect, which the department deemed justified.

Six months later, Lt. Melissa McFadden, one of the department’s few high-ranking Black officers, also made a joke, according to police records. But she is now facing far more severe repercussions that reflect the disparities in how Black and white officers are treated, she told The Appeal. During a performance evaluation with a Black sergeant, McFadden said that she could have given him a poor rating, but that she did not believe in “Black on Black crime.” The department found that this rating was an act of favoritism and created a “hostile work environment.” For this, the Columbus police department has recommended McFadden be terminated.

McFadden believes the response to her comment has more to do with what she and other officers of color say is a pattern of systemic racial discrimination in the Columbus police department. Columbus’s population is nearly 40 percent non-white, yet the Columbus Division of Police’s top leadership is entirely white.

The investigation, McFadden argues, is racially motivated retaliation for her role in helping a younger Black officer file two discrimination complaints against a supervisor in 2016, in reporting a commander’s retaliation over these complaints to the chief of police, and later filing her own discrimination complaint.

After McFadden helped the younger officer accuse a supervisor of  discrimination, Columbus police commander Jennifer Knight, who is white, told a subordinate that she was going to “take [Lt. McFadden] out,” according to a lawsuit filed by McFadden. Records from the investigation show that Columbus police chief Kimberly Jacobs was informed of Knight’s comments, but then assigned a friend of Knight, Rhonda Grizzell, to oversee McFadden. In the month that followed, the lawsuit says, Grizzell, another white commander, began targeting McFadden.

Copies of emails and text messages, obtained by The Appeal, seem to support McFadden’s allegations. Some of the communications show Grizzell texting multiple officers about McFadden before they had formally filed any statements complaining about McFadden and later instructing them on how to compose a strong statement. The primary complaint against McFadden came from a sergeant nearly a month after the comment and after multiple conversations about the evaluation with Grizzell.

Another email shows a deputy chief recommending that McFadden, while under investigation, work in the property room “unless and until she is no longer either the subject or complainant in an EEO investigation involving Commander Grizzell.” McFadden claims that this email proves that the department has been punishing her for exercising her legal rights against discrimination, rather than solely for being the subject of an investigation.

McFadden filed her own discrimination complaint involving Grizzell and later filed a lawsuit against the department in response to this alleged retaliation.

In a phone interview, when asked about the department’s response to McFadden’s allegations, Columbus Division of Police spokesperson Denise Alex-Bouzounis said “I can tell you that quite a few of the complainants were African-American.” When pressed about the specific allegations, Alex-Bouzounis said, “I really can’t answer that because it’s part of her lawsuits against us, but I can tell you that Chief Jacobs stands by her decision to recommend termination.” The department did not respond to written inquiries submitted by The Appeal.

But four current officers and one retired officer told The Appeal that they believed McFadden’s allegations of discriminatory retaliation, and say they reflect a larger problem of racism in and outside of the department.

“They’re only going after her because she’s standing up for what’s right,” said one officer, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. Police investigators in the division “do this all the time,” said the officer. “If you’re a strong, opinionated Black officer, they’ll put you in your place quickly.”

Another current officer agreed, calling the investigation of McFadden a “witch hunt” in retaliation for McFadden helping the younger officer file a discrimination complaint. “Melissa since day one has always been outspoken and stood up for everyone’s rights, Black and white, if it’s wrong, you’re wrong, Black, white, purple, or green.”

“When you’re outspoken they treat you a different way,” said a third officer on the force. “They want you just to be quiet. If you’re not, they retaliate, that’s what they’re doing to Melissa.”

Officers say the alleged retaliation is not the only example of racially disparate treatment in the department’s disciplinary decisions.

In 2014, Eric Moore, a white officer, was accused of calling two Black officers the n-word and making statements about killing them. Colleagues interviewed about Moore said that he would also use the terms “apes” and “monkeys” when referring to Black people. Investigators in 2015 determined that Moore did use derogatory language but only gave him a written reprimand. At the time, Chief Jacobs, who is white and now calling for McFadden to be fired for her comments, said a written reprimand was sufficient for this racist language. “If I could prove a racist, sexist, homophobic mindset impacted an officer’s behavior, that’s something I can act on,” Jacobs told the Columbus Dispatch. “But it has to be actions, not thoughts.”

Last year, video emerged of Columbus police officer Zachary Rosen stomping the head of DeMarco Anderson, a young Black man. The beating took place two weeks after a grand jury declined to indict Rosen for fatally shooting a 23-year-old Black man. Jacobs recommended Rosen be suspended for three days without pay, but the city went further, choosing to fire him. Columbus’s police union, however, rallied behind the white officer and appealed the decision, getting him his job back this year.

“I promise you if that had been a Black officer, FOP [the police union] wouldn’t have rallied behind him, and he would have been fired,” said one Columbus cop.

Beyond overt retaliation, Black officers say racial disparities also manifest themselves in the department’s recruiting and promotion practices.

On the front end, officers, interviewed by The Appeal, alleged that Black applicants are being  ignored and weeded out by the division’s investigative unit. A 2012 memo obtained by Pacific Standard seems to support these claims. In the memo, a Black officer reported to Chief Jacobs that the division’s background vetting team was hand-picking candidates who “look like they will make it through the process,” rather than assessing recruits based on their exam score. Despite occasional rhetoric from the city about the importance of diversity, police recruiting classes have been overwhelmingly white in recent years.

This front-end disparity helps explain why no Black officers on the Columbus police force today make it into top leadership positions, a problem which is exacerbated by exclusive, predominantly white social networks, officers say. Several officers argued that the department has failed to hire enough Black officers, especially from the community, insteading bringing in white officers, who may have either a naive or white supremacist attitude toward Black civilians.

One officer claimed that white officers like to “inflict their own ways of justice” on Black neighborhoods, referring to violent police-civilian interactions. “It’s like a bidding war to get in on these Black precincts,” said one officer. “This their legal way to affect Black people,” said the officer.

Another argued that some officers, especially white officers, come with naive intentions about helping inner city residents, but then become violent once their expectations don’t match what they have seen on television. “You’re out there every day, and the majority of things you see are bad. This job changes you in ways that you can’t see, and you can be become an oppressor. That’s even for minority officers.”

If even veteran police officers are being punished for speaking against alleged racial discrimination, other cops are unlikely to speak against day-to-day police abuse of civilians, the officers argue. “If somebody uses excessive force because of who a person is, that’s a lot of pressure against going outside and saying ‘hey this officer said this or did this,’” said another officer. “This sends a message that if you open your mouth you better get ready, don’t say anything.”

“If I’m retaliated against as an officer, and it goes unchecked,” McFadden said, “of course I’m not going to complain about citizens getting mistreated. We know what happens if we speak out. Even we are retaliated against. We’re Black, but we’re supposed to be blue.”

Milwaukee Candidates Clash In Race to Succeed The Infamous Sheriff Clarke

Several candidates are vying to become Milwaukee Sheriff in the wake of Sheriff David Clarke's resignation last fall. But will they truly spurn his legacy of jail deaths and cooperation with ICE?

Former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke Jr. speaks at the NRA-ILA's Leadership Forum in 2017
Scott Olson/Getty

Milwaukee Candidates Clash In Race to Succeed The Infamous Sheriff Clarke

Several candidates are vying to become Milwaukee Sheriff in the wake of Sheriff David Clarke's resignation last fall. But will they truly spurn his legacy of jail deaths and cooperation with ICE?

On Tuesday, Milwaukee County will hold its first primary election for sheriff since David Clarke resigned from the position in September 2017 to join America First Action, a Trump-supporting SuperPAC. President Trump, Clarke said just before joining the SuperPAC, “does not have a racist bone in his body.” During his tenure, Clarke also said Black Lives Matter should be added to a list of “hate groups,” declared that “systemic racism in America is so rare today that some feel it necessary to make up stories to keep the lie about it alive” and, much more significantly, had three people die in his jail during his final year in office alone.

The Democratic primary election will have three opponents, including Richard Schmidt, who became interim sheriff when Clarke resigned, Earnell Lucas, who is head of Major League Baseball security, and Deputy Robert Ostrowski. Schmidt and Lucas say they’re opposed to Sheriff Clarke’s record on everything from jails to immigration, despite Schmidt serving as senior commander under Clarke and being named as a defendant in multiple wrongful death lawsuits from Clarke’s reign including the in-custody death of Terrill Thomas. In 2016, Thomas died of dehydration in the jail after guards shut off his water for one week. Several officers involved in the incident were charged with felonies by the county’s district attorney, including Major Nancy Evans who was accused of “withholding information from her superiors, lying to her superiors, failing to preserve evidence, repeatedly lying to law enforcement investigators and lying at the inquest.” The jail also faced sexual assault allegations under Clarke—one woman who filed a lawsuit claimed that she was raped five times by a guard while incarcerated at age 19.

In an interview with The Appeal, Schmidt insisted that he was not responsible for the jail deaths: “I cannot take responsibility for something I didn’t run.” He added that he has made significant changes to the jail’s operation—such as changing its healthcare administrator and hiring three wellness coordinators—since becoming acting sheriff last year.

But for some local activists, Schmidt’s proximity to Sheriff Clarke is troubling. “Schmidt does represent a continuation of the Clarke administration,” Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrants rights organization and workers’ center in Wisconsin, told The Appeal, “He ran the day-to-day operations under Clarke.” Yesterday, Voces de la Frontera held a press conference at the county jail “to condemn Richard Schmidt’s role in deaths” there including James Perry, who died in 2010 after being violently restrained by law enforcement after he suffered seizures.  

And while Schmidt and Lucas claim to be criminal justice reformers, their policy positions reflect a more conservative stance. Schmidt says he doesn’t support the 287(g) program, which deputizes local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws. However, local nonprofits told The Appeal that when they asked Schmidt to withdraw the department’s 287(g) application, he did not do so. And under Schmidt’s leadership the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office honors ICE detainer requests—a continuation of Sheriff Clarke’s policy.

Lucas’s campaign, meanwhile, told The Appeal that he would not honor ICE detainers, except in certain cases. “An ICE detainer is a request, not a warrant,” a spokesperson from his campaign said. “Absent a warrant, Earnell will only honor ICE detainers if a rigorous screening process determines the person to be a threat to self, others, or to the community.  Otherwise, it will not be Earnell’s policy to honor ICE detainers.” In an interview with The Appeal, Lucas declared, “We have more pressing needs for holding persons in our jail than individuals who simply do not have the proper documentations.”

Neumann-Ortiz called ICE detainers “part of the ICE immigration machinery that undermines public safety [and] public trust” and cited Lucas’s commitment to not make ICE holds as one of the reasons Voces de la Frontera support him. “With such an aggressive assault and escalation of these policies that we’re seeing at the border and we’re seeing in the interior, it’s very critical that in every county and in every police department that we win these policies of non-collaboration with the sharing or holding of people [for ICE],” she told The Appeal.

Activists, organizers, and nonprofit organizations in Milwaukee have engaged in a years-long battle with Clarke and they believe that their organizing was a decisive factor in his abrupt resignation. Indeed, seven months before Clarke resigned, Voces de la Frontera organized a general strike called “Day Without Latinos,” which brought 80,000 people to the steps of the Milwaukee County Courthouse. The action garnered widespread media attention and inspired a national general strike called “A Day Without Immigrants.”

Now, organizers view the coming election as a chance for Milwaukee to truly close the book on Clarke’s civil rights-trampling reign. “It’s important we have our voices heard in this process because every day our communities are being over policed,” Angela Lang executive director of  Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) told The Appeal. “We’re confronted with systemic and institutional racism on a daily basis …[and] we see Black and brown communities constantly being over policed and attacked for merely existing.”

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The ‘Streamline’ Program to Prosecute Immigrants is Ensnaring Kids by Mistake

‘Operation Streamline’ speeds up immigration prosecutions.

U.S.-Mexico border fence in San Diego, California.
Mario Tama / Getty

The ‘Streamline’ Program to Prosecute Immigrants is Ensnaring Kids by Mistake

‘Operation Streamline’ speeds up immigration prosecutions.

On Aug. 1, a judge in the Southern District of California tossed aside a conviction of a minor, after the government found out that it had prosecuted and sentenced a Mexican citizen who was under 18 for a federal misdemeanor. Ordinarily, minors from Mexico arrested at the border are returned as soon as possible. Those from noncontiguous countries, like Honduras, are handed over to the Department of Health and Human Services, and those being charged with more serious crimes, like importing drugs, are handled in state courts, which have greater protections for minors. Federal defenders in the Southern District are now pointing to this botched case as the result of a program known as “Operation Streamline” which, since the beginning of July, has been expediting the prosecution of immigrants and allows them to be charged, plead guilty, and be sentenced in under half an hour.

Operation Streamline was expanded to the Southern District of California last month after the implementation of the Department of Justice’s “zero tolerance” policy in the spring, which aimed to prosecute as many people arrested at the border as possible. The court and federal jail system is now straining under the weight of a sixteenfold increase in prosecutions for misdemeanor illegal entry compared with last June. The Southern District created a special process in which people caught crossing the border would be held by Border Patrol until they arrived in court, where they would be offered the option to take a plea deal at their initial appearance. Through Operation Streamline, the court sought to relieve federal jails of the crush of people now being federally charged and accommodate the preferences of the executive branch.

On the evening of Saturday, July 21, Sabrina*, a Mexican citizen, crossed the U.S.-Mexico border near Tecate, California, and was spotted by a Border Patrol agent just a quarter of a mile from the border. She was then questioned, arrested, and spent the rest of the weekend sleeping on the floor of a Border Patrol station filled with other people arrested at the border. She was given a thin blanket and was not allowed to bathe or brush her teeth.

That following Monday, she was brought to a garage of the federal building in downtown San Diego. Since the beginning of Operation Streamline, the garage has been converted to a makeshift meeting room for immigrants being charged with federal misdemeanors and their lawyers. Sabrina had a few minutes to discuss with her public defender whether she would want to take a speedy plea deal or remain in federal custody as she fights her case.

Federal public defenders have described to The Appeal the significant pressure that immigrants like Sabrina face to plead guilty in exchange for a time-served deal, which would allow them, theoretically, to be returned to Mexico in a matter of hours instead of waiting in detention for days or weeks as their criminal case plays out. Having a federal misdemeanor on your record, however, carries serious consequences for your possible future immigration status in the United States.

With the government and the courts trying to rush through prosecutions, defense attorneys are scrambling to make sure they are providing adequate representation for their clients—and that means doing things like confirming their client is as old as they say they are. That Monday, Sabrina had told her lawyer she was born on Feb. 13, 2000, which would mean she was 18. Federal defenders have told The Appeal that they aren’t certain why some defendants misrepresent their ages during interviews with them. However, with only a few hours before their criminal case reaches the sentencing phase, defenders are unable to call family members or governments to confirm the age of their clients, something they do whenever they think a client might be a minor.  

The court wasn’t able to process all of the guilty pleas that had been entered that day, so Sabrina pleaded guilty to illegal entry, a federal misdemeanor, on the morning of Wednesday, July 25, before Federal Magistrate Judge Robert N. Block.

As immigration custody processed Sabrina for her removal from the United States, she gave her real birthdate, which established her as younger than 18. But by then, the government had already charged and sentenced a minor.

On Aug. 1, federal defenders, along with prosecutors, asked Judge Block to stop the judgment, which stays the decision of of a court after a verdict has been reached because it is erroneous or likely to be reversed. The federal public defenders placed the blame for this invalid prosecution on Operation Streamline.

“This error is tied to ‘Streamline,’” Ben Davis, an attorney at the Federal Defenders of San Diego, told Block in court. “There’s not enough time to interrogate the facts when there are so many pressures to plead guilty.”

Block granted the motion, but refused to assign blame to the expedited-prosecution program. “This is on the defense counsel during the interview process,” Block responded to Davis.

Davis explained that normally he would have time to investigate and get in touch with family members, but Block cut him off. “That’s another reason why you shouldn’t plead guilty,” he told Davis, saying he was not interested in commenting on Operation Streamline.

But the coercive nature of the process continues to put federal defenders in a difficult situation. The same day that Block charged and sentenced Sabrina for a federal misdemeanor, he also began refusing to accept guilty pleas unless defense lawyers stated their personal opinion that their clients weren’t being coerced to take plea deals. Attorneys from the Federal Defenders of San Diego refused to answer that question, citing a conflict of interest between what they believe—that Streamline is coercive by its very nature—and what’s best for their clients. The result has been that several clients were unable to plead guilty during their initial appearances despite their wish to do so.

“I have a duty of loyalty to the client and also I have a duty of candor to the court,” federal public defender Michelle Angeles told Block during an Operation Streamline hearing on July 25. “So that puts me in conflict with what my client wants and my duty to your honor to be honest about what my thoughts are answering the question.”

Block then told defense attorneys that he was worried about missing his train and that they could either say their client hadn’t been coerced to plead guilty or their client remain in custody.

“I cannot tell you that Operation Streamline is not coercive. I believe it is coercive. However, by saying this, you’ve now told my clients that it is my position and my concerns and my feelings that are keeping them in jail,” explained federal public defender Kimberly Trimble.

Later in the hearing, as federal defender Roxana Sandoval attempted to speak on behalf of her client before his sentencing, Block began to count down the seconds she had to do so:

THE COURT: The Court has to control its calendar. I’ll give you 60 seconds, 60 seconds.

SANDOVAL: I can’t limit the —

THE COURT: You’ve just wasted five of them.

SANDOVAL: — sorrow and grief that he has gone through because he —

THE COURT: You’ve just wasted 10 of ’em.

“Just for the record, I didn’t cut counsel off at 60 seconds,” Block noted after Sandoval finished speaking.

According to federal defenders, prosecutors are continuing to bring minors into federal courtrooms in their effort to prosecute as many immigrants as possible. On the afternoon of Aug. 3, for example, Judge Jill Burkhardt determined that a Mexican immigrant being prosecuted for misdemeanor illegal entry was a minor. Once the mistake was realized and the minor was brought into court to have their case dismissed, the courtroom was quickly cleared of press and observers to protect the child’s identity.  Judge Burkhardt then ordered the case sealed.

But Sabrina didn’t receive that type of treatment. By the time her judgment was arrested, she had already been deported.  


*Name changed to protect the identity of a minor.

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