Brookline’s liberal reputation is once again being tested by the latest development in a legal case that has put this upper-middle class town in the national spotlight.
Attorneys for Brookline have recommended that two African American police officers be terminated from their jobs. The recommendation came at a Brookline hearing earlier this month. Town lawyer Joseph Padolsky requested that the hearing officer fire Estifanos Zerai-Misgun and Prentice Pilot for walking away from the police department more than a year ago over allegations of racial harassment.
A diverse crowd of nearly 200 of the officers' supporters packed into the hearing room in the middle of a work day. As members of the audience nodded in agreement, Hillary Schwab, a lawyer for the two cops, told the hearing officer, James Lampke, that Brookline had refused to take the allegations of racism and offers of mediation seriously.
“We have repeatedly offered to meet with them," Schwab said. "We did go to a mediation. The mediation was not successful, but we continued after that to reach out to them to try to resolve the issues.”
Wearing civilian clothing, Pilot told WGBH News about the profession he had come to love. “I thoroughly enjoyed my job, without question,” Pilot said. But he will not go back, he said, unless the alleged harassment is resolved.
“I was assigned to an unmarked car, plainclothes, and pulled up to a red light,” said Zerai-Misgun, who joined Pilot in the lawsuit, recalling how one incident began in 2014.
“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."
Pilot alleges another white officer harassed him in a separate incident in 2015.
“I was in a police cruiser in uniform and this sergeant was doing a paid detail in a uniform. And I had just put in for a traffic investigator job," Pilot said. “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 some n.....r jumping jacks, and I’ll put in a good word for you.’”
Pilot and Zerai-Misgun walked off the job in December 2015, alleging racial abuse they said left them fearing for their lives. Brookline Police Chief Daniel O’Leary offered to mediate and publicly appealed to them to return to work.
“We did not ignore it,” he said.
But Schwab alleges mediation efforts by Brookline included sending on-duty, armed police to Zerai-Misgun and Pilot’s residences to serve notices. She described that as a form of intimidation given the concerns expressed by the officers.
"There are very few minority officers on the police force and virtually no superior officers that are minority. So, we are hopeful that the town of Brookline would not terminate two of its best African-American officers.” — Owen Sellstrom
“No employee should have to be concerned about being on the receiving end of bantering or misconduct or disrespect, frankly, in their workplace, so we do take them very seriously," Joslin Murphy, legal counsel for Brookline and a former police officer for the town, told WGBH News.
Brookline carried out a thorough investigation over the last year, according to Murphy.
“There's no dispute that there was conversation among and between officers Misgun and his fellow officers,” said Murphy. “What is disputed is, perhaps, in officer Pilot’s case, there were no witnesses. Officer Pilot said that another officer said one thing to him. That officer disputes it, and there’s no other evidence to corroborate either Officer Pilot or the alleged offending officer’s response.”
The investigation was inconclusive. Owen Sellstrom, with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, says that finding left him dumbfounded. His organization — working with Schwab — filed a race discrimination and retaliation lawsuit on behalf of the black officers. That case is still in the early stages in Superior Court, said Sellstrom.
“It’s clearly an important issue that the officers have raised," Sellstrom said. "They had a lot of courage standing up to their employer and airing the issues that they did about a racially hostile work environment. We felt that it was important to take on the case to make sure that that culture was changed and that other people would not be afraid to come forward and raise similar issues that they might be experiencing at their work place or at other police departments.”
Firing the two officers, who currently are on unpaid leave, would leave a stain on the town, according to Sellstrom.
“We hope it won't come to that. The town of Brookline already has a major problem with diversity on its police force," he said. "There are very few minority officers on the police force and virtually no superior officers that are minority. So, we are hopeful that the town of Brookline would not terminate two of its best African-American officers.”
The town and the officers seem to agree on that last point. “I would love to see both officers returned to their Police Department in their work as Brookline police officers," Murphy said. "They were and are very highly regarded members of the police department. I think that the department would like to see them return to work and feel as if they are respected members of the community.”
But the town has also signaled that it has gone as far as it will go outside court. Late last year, Brookline fired a black firefighter, Gerald Alston, who had accused the town of tolerating an atmosphere of racial intimidation. Alston has said he supports Pilot and Zerai-Misgun.
Firefighter Gerald Alston in his own words:
Sellstrom said that outcome raises serious concerns. But, he added, “We think it is a strong piece of evidence about the way that the town deals with racial issues. And so it is something that will be, I think, a piece of evidence that we will be bringing into this trial as well.”
Pilot — a recognizable figure on Brookline’s streets for two decades — says he is steeling himself for the possibility he will never walk a beat on those streets again. “Fortunately, I think the majority of the citizens that I come across, they’re concerned and they care about me and I feel the well-wishing energy coming from them."
Lampke is expected to announce soon if Pilot and Zerai-Misgun will ever wear a Brookline uniform again
An African-American woman in attendance at the March 3 hearing, flower shop owner Leslie Epps, has accused the Brookline Police Department of racial harassment. The town has not yet responded to WGBH News’ inquiry about this incident.
In Epps' own words: