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A Pennsylvania Police Department Is Accused Of Klan Involvement and Discrimination

In a civil rights lawsuit, an officer in Allentown claims he was subjected to racial discrimination before he was fired.

Photo illustration by Elizabeth Brown. Photo from the Allentown Police Department.

One night in October 2014, Allentown police officer Maurice Flowers-Williams responded to a shooting. When Flowers-Williams, who is Black, arrived at the scene a fellow officer allegedly said, “Open your eyes or turn your flashlight back on, all we see is a uniform coming towards us.” 

In late July of this year, Flowers-Willi22ams filed a civil rights lawsuit against the city of Allentown and its police that claims he experienced multiple incidents of discrimination and retaliation for complaining about his treatment while serving as an officer with the department in eastern Pennsylvania.

In May 2012, the Allentown police hired Flowers-Williams. According to his lawsuit, he was subjected to racist comments and discrimination almost immediately afterward.

In June 2012, according to the complaint, fellow officers told him that his race was the sole reason for his hiring.

“I hate to say it, but you know you were hired because you’re black,” one officer allegedly said.

Another officer allegedly told Flowers-Williams that he was “hired off the minority list” because “the city had to fill a quota.”

About one year before the October 2014 incident at the nighttime shooting scene, officers allegedly commented about Flowers-Williams’s complexion being too dark to be seen at night. One officer told him he needed to smile while in his patrol car because he could only see the “white” of his eyes. 

Flowers-Williams reported the remarks to commanding officers, including then-Chief Joel Fitzgerald, but they were not addressed or remedied by the department, according to the lawsuit

Allentown Police have faced accusations of racial discrimination against minority officers in the past. In 1997, former Captain Michael Combs was investigated by Allentown Police Internal Affairs for keeping white supremacist memorabilia such as a Confederate flag, Ku Klux Klan photographs and a bust of Adolph Hitler in his office.

The Internal Affairs investigation found that Combs displayed Nazi memorabilia in his office and engaged in “verbal insensitivity towards certain ethnic and religious groups.” Combs was ordered to attend sensitivity training.

Combs told the Morning Call that he obtained white supremacist materials by infiltrating hate groups in the Allentown area. Allentown Police officials said he had never been assigned to such duties. Combs also told the Morning Call that the idea that he held racist or anti-Semitic beliefs was “ridiculous.” 

Although Combs left the department before Flowers-Williams was hired, his lawsuit alleges Combs had a Ku Klux Klan hood that he would wear around the office. 

Both the Allentown police and the city of Allentown did not respond to requests for comment from The Appeal. Neither entity has filed an answer to Flower-Williams’s complaint. Sidney Gold, a Philadelphia-based attorney representing Flowers-Williams in his lawsuit, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. 

Flowers-Williams claims that he was passed over for promotions several times, despite receiving satisfactory job performance reviews. In December 2014, he was fired. Flowers-Williams’s complaint alleges that his supervisor cited his 2014 attention deficit disorder diagnosis as the reason for terminating him.

“If you’re telling about other police officers’ misconduct, then you’ve broken the thin blue line,” Ojmarrh Mitchell, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Arizona State University, said. “If you’re making allegations of racial discrimination, sexual discrimination, sexual harassment [or] corruption…they’ll get rid of you in a second.”

Mtichell said law enforcement also often accepts other forms of misconduct that the general public tends to oppose, like the use of excessive force.

Between 2015 and 2017, the city paid nearly $1 million to settle lawsuits filed against its police department.

In September 2017, the department paid $95,000 to Alexander Aron, a Black college student arrested and allegedly assaulted by officers in October 2014. According to Aron’s lawsuit, he was standing on the porch of his home when he was approached by officers who questioned him because they said he matched the description of a robbery suspect.

According to the lawsuit, Aron was compliant but was thrown to the ground, punched, and Tasered several times by four officers. 

Eli Heckman, an Allentown resident, witnessed the incident and recorded it. When officers saw him recording, they allegedly seized his phone and smashed it. In 2016, the city paid Heckman $45,000 to settle a federal civil rights claim stemming from the incident.

In July 2017, Allentown agreed to pay Hector Medina-Pena $160,000 to settle a federal lawsuit that alleged excessive force by the police.

In 2015, officers stopped Medina-Pena for suspicion of robbery. In a dashboard camera video of the incident taken by Allentown officers, Medina-Pena exited his vehicle and put his hands in the air. He appeared to comply with the officers orders and lowered his body to the ground. Officer Joseph Iannetta—previously the subject of multiple use-of-force complaints and lawsuits—then kicked Medina-Pena in the face. After assisting with the arrest of other suspects, Iannetta returned to Medina-Pena and appeared to place his knee on top of his head. Medina-Pena suffered a shattered jaw as a result of the incident.

The Flowers-Williams lawsuit also alleges that Allentown police routinely engage in discriminatory targeting of people of color.

By scraping dockets filed in the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania, The Appeal reviewed more than 6,000 criminal dockets filed in 2017 in Lehigh County, where Allentown is located. The review includes all of the criminal cases filed in the county that were not expunged before the review.

Based on the review, more than 25 percent of those charged with crimes by Allentown police are Black. Although they comprise about 14 percent of the city’s population, Black people are more than twice as likely than white people to be charged with a criminal offense.

Police in most Pennsylvania counties can directly file charges with magisterial district judges, whose decision on bail is often heavily influenced by police recommendations.

The Appeal determined that Black people charged in 2017 by Allentown police were more likely to be detained pretrial than White people charged by the department.