Each day a procession of ethnicities criss-cross the wide intersection in Brookline’s bustling Coolidge Corner—some might say symbolically. Brookline, the birthplace of President John F. Kennedy, has a reputation for racial tolerance.
But scratch the surface of its multihued serenity and quite a few people here have come to the conclusion that something’s not quite right.
“It’s an issue that's probably reflected in all parts of the country,” said Brookline police chief Daniel C. O’Leary, explaining how this town, known as a bastion of liberalism, has come to be seen by some as a city riven by institutionalized racism. “Brookline is no different from anywhere else. But I think we have a community that’s very in-tune to fairness. That’s why the topic of race has become a big topic of discussion.”
That discussion is taking place both outside and inside the Brookline Police Department. Two popular African-American cops have accused the department of tolerating an atmosphere of racial harassment and intimidation. One of the two is Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, who grew up in Charlestown’s tough housing projects.
“[Charlestown] was more dangerous”, said Zerai-Misgun, whose parents immigrated from Eritrea. “It didn’t have as many resources as Brookline. So when I came to Brookline I saw that immediately and thought this is a great neighborhood, aesthetically, visually. But once I got deep into the Brookline government and being a police officer I started to see that culture of fear, bullying, and racism, and just a very hostile place to work.”
How did things get to this point in Brookline?
"I first started experiencing racism in the department in the summer of 2014,” said Zerai-Misgun.
Tall and physically fit, Zerai-Misgun has been with the Brookline Police for three years, and in 2014 had more arrests under his belt than any other officer on the force.
“I was assigned to an unmarked car, plainclothes, and I pulled up to a red light and I saw my lieutenant crossing the street and I rolled the window down and I said, ‘Hey, lieutenant, how are you?’ To which he looked over to me, he said, ‘What the f..k? Who would put a black man behind one of these?' I was shocked,” Zerai-Misgun said.
Two years after the alleged incident, Zerai-Misgun still seemed shaken by the experience during our interview with him at the WGBH Newsroom.
O’Leary says he took steps to address the 2014 incident.
“We did not ignore it," he said. "We did take steps that were agreed to and probably suggested, and that made those officers, at least Estifanos, at least in my opinion, comfortable. And when I talked to him later on, he wanted to put things behind him and move forward. That’s what we were doing. And we didn’t hear of another complaint until two or three weeks ago.”
The date was actually Dec. 4, 2015. That’s when another African-American officer, Prentice Pilot, alleges that he was confronted by a blatant act of racism.
“I pulled up to a command staff member, a sergeant on the job," said Pilot, a 50-year-old, seventeen-year veteran of the Brookline Police Department. "I was in a police cruiser in uniform and this sergeant was doing a paid detail in a police uniform. And I had just put in for a traffic investigator job, just put in an application for the job. I assume he was talking about that application when he said, ‘Why don’t you pull the car up to the curb, go up on the sidewalk, do some nigger jumping jacks, and I’ll put in a good word for you?’"
That was a Friday. Pilot said he spent the weekend thinking about what had just happened to him.
“Officer Pilot came to see me on a Monday about a quarter to nine in the morning,” said O’Leary. “Before he left the office that day, before he left the office that morning, he knew who the lead investigator was and that the lead investigator was going to be contacting him later that day, and they met. The other officer that was involved was called in off-duty and interviewed before the end of the day.”
That officer—the officer whom Pilot accused of racism—had been reprimanded in the past for verbal abuse against a subordinate, according to a story by WickedLocal reporter, John Hilliard. That officer is still on the force.
Pilot and Zerai-Misgun say that when their allegations of racial harassment began leaking out to the public, they started getting the silent treatment from fellow officers in Brookline’s closely-knit department.
"I just crossed the thin blue line here," Pilot said. "That’s how support is removed from a whistle blower or a snitch.”
That's more than just feeling uncomfortable: Pilot, a member of Brookline’s SWAT team, fears for his safety.
“I told the chief that I feel that I also have to resign from the SWAT team," he said. "I’m not interested in being put into a position that might jeopardize my safety or need support from other police officers in a violent situation. I don’t feel they have my back.”
Brookline resident Andrew Leong, a University of Massachusetts Boston law professor and local Asian-American activist, heard what was going on in the Brookline Police Department and brought it to the attention of the five-member Board of Selectmen.
"Am I African American? No," Leong said. "But should we care about such issues, whether we’re white, whether we’re Asian or Latino? Yes. And if it’s happening in our backyard, most certainly we should do something about it.”
Over the last few weeks, hundred of supporters of the officers have packed town hall meetings to voice their concerns. At a meeting on January 5, Board of Selectmen Chairman Neil Wishinsky told an audience of 150 people, “To be absolutely clear, there will be no tolerance of discrimination or related retaliation against any employee of the Brookline Police Department.”
But the black police officers say statements like that are “laughable” in light of the Gerald Austin incident. In 2010, black Brookline firefighter Gerald Alston filed a complaint after a white fire lieutenant left a racial slur on his voice mail.
• Listen to the voice mail below.
The firefighter, Paul Pender, did not deny making the remark and was briefly suspended for “four tours of duty.” But an outside investigator concluded the slur was not directed at Alston. Many Brookline residents scratched their heads at this conclusion, and the African-American cops say the case illustrates why they have no faith in the town "to do the right thing." They have opted to stay out of work until the offending officers are disciplined.
But O’Leary, who has brought in an outside consultant to work with the department on issues such as implicit bias, says he hopes the two black officers will resume their duties soon. O’Leary acknowledges there is a problem, but seems frustrated by his seeming inability to get all the parties talking to one another.
“There’s something out there that makes them feel uncomfortable, but if they don’t come in and tell us what it is, if they don’t come in and talk to us about it, and try to be part of solving it, then what good does that do anybody?" said O'Leary, who is well respected among fellow police chiefs throughout the metropolitan area. "That really doesn’t do anybody any good."
O'Leary said he didn't know how long the officers could stay out of work, and couldn't answer a question about whether they would be fired if they didn't return.
"I hope it’s not a long period of time, for their sake," he said. "I hope they come back. We have our door open. We didn’t want them to leave in the first place."
“We kind of feel like Sisyphus,” said Pilot. “We feel like we’re pushing the rock up the hill and it’s going to roll down and we’re going to have to push it right back up again.”
Pilot and Zerai-Misgun say they are not optimistic, despite consultants, investigations, and selectmen’s promises.
“This is not just about Estie and I,” said Pilot. “This is about the systemic racist issues that exist in the town of Brookline.”
"I’ve lost complete faith in leadership in the police department, town selectmen," Zerai-Misgun added. "We have a serious issue in Brookline, and it has affected me. I didn’t think it would affect me being a police officer, but it has affected more than just me and Prentice.”
The two policemen are using sick time to continue their protest. Brookline’s liberal psyche may be further affected by a federal lawsuit being considered by the officers, alleging that the town’s police department may be too racially precarious for them to ever return.
Statement By Selectman Ben Franco On The Brookline Police Controversy:
Like every community in every corner of this country, Brookline is imperfect. This isn’t news to me, nor do I imagine it is news to anyone else. What has been revelatory for many, myself included, in recent weeks and months is just how far from perfection Brookline is on matters of race. Brookline may not be facing debates about the fate of the Confederate flag or police shootings, but that doesn’t mean that the challenges Brookline faces aren’t real - as uncomfortable as that may be to admit.
I grew up in Brookline. I got involved in local politics and ran for office because I love Brookline - a love that comes from my life experience in a compassionate community where I have felt safe. To an extent I never realized before, not all of my neighbors share my privilege. On a personal level, and as a Selectman, I am deeply troubled by the information about Brookline that has recently become public. I have been embarrassed by the related portrayal of Brookline in the press. The Town I have read about in the media for the past few weeks does not reflect my experience, my values, or my beliefs. And yet, I know that the pain I am feeling pales in comparison to the pain so many in the community feel every day when they are made to feel unwelcome, excluded, and in some cases unsafe. I will not stand for discrimination of any type and pledge to work to ensure that Brookline lives up to its self-professed ideals of compassion and equality for all.
I want to thank Officers Pilot and Zerai-Misgun for accepting the Town’s offer of mediation in order to facilitate their return to work. I am optimistic that an agreement can be reached. In the near future, I sincerely hope the Town will be able to announce additional steps it plans to take to address the general concerns raised by Officers Pilot and Zerai-Misgun and the broader topics of race, racism, and discrimination.
I look forward to working with citizens, activists, employees, Town leaders, and my colleagues on the Board to chart a meaningful and cooperative path forward.
POINT OF CLARIFICATION FROM OFFICERS PILOT AND ZERAI-MISGUN 1-21-16
We wanted to clarify Selectmen Franco’s statement where he thanked us for “accepting the Town’s offer of mediation”. To date, what we have said is that we are merely considering the offer. “Consideration” should not be construed to be “acceptance.” We do not know how nor why Selectmen Franco jumped to the conclusion since we have never once formally said anything with respect to accepting mediation since we are still considering the same. While we have met with the Town’s investigator on this case, “mediation” and “investigation” is not one and the same. We will be issuing a formal statement shortly on mediation once we have fully considered the issue at hand.