CBC Supports Black Officers In Capitol Police Lawsuit

Posted July 3, 2003 at 5:19pm

The Congressional Black Caucus issued a letter to the Capitol Police Board June 26 supporting settlement negotiations in an ongoing class-action lawsuit against the law-enforcement agency.

The class-action discrimination complaint, filed in 2001 by members of the U.S. Capitol Black Police Association, asserts that the law-enforcement agency denied promotions, retaliated against and unfairly disciplined or fired black officers.

In ongoing settlement negotiations with the Police Board, the officers are seeking both monetary damages and nonmonetary reforms.

The letter, which calls the lawsuit “an embarrassment to Congress,” is signed by the CBC’s chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), along with Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) and Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.). The California lawmaker brought the negotiation to the CBC’s attention earlier this year, a spokeswoman said.

“We dealt with these same issues of discrimination against African American officers in police forces in the 1970’s. We dealt with these same issues of discrimination against African American officers in the police forces in the 1980’s,” the letter states. “We are incensed and embarrassed at having to deal with these same systematic issues of discrimination against African American officers in our own U.S. Capitol Police Force — now in the 21st century.”

In the letter, CBC members urge the Police Board to “implement far-reaching nonmonetary remedies and oversight measures to ensure that discrimination against the African American officers ceases.” The group also supports the monetary portion of the settlement.

“There are active settlement discussions and the discussions are constructive and remain positive. I see this letter as support for a fairer settlement for the Black Capitol Police officers,” said Joe Gebhardt, an attorney representing the officers.

“It seems to us … that the Capitol Police Board and the chief are working for a settlement,” Gebhardt added. “The real question is what kind of settlement will there be?”

A statement by the Police Board — which includes Police Chief Terrance Gainer, Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Pickle, House Sergeant-at-Arms Bill Livingood and Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman — defended the department’s promotion system and disciplinary process, while also praising the force’s officers for their day-to-day work.

“The United States Capitol Police provides a workplace where every member of this world class police department is entitled to and provided fair and equitable treatment on a daily basis. Racial or other inappropriate animus against any class of individuals is not tolerated,” the statement reads.

The board declined to provide additional information because of the ongoing mediation sessions, but stated: “Nevertheless, the Capitol Police Board and the chief of Police are confident that when the issues involved are fully resolved, it will be confirmed that the Department has not acted unlawfully or discriminatory in any manner.”

Additionally, in a Thursday morning interview, Gainer said: “I don’t think there’s any room for bigotry in this department. It won’t be tolerated and where that’s found I’ll take very swift and stern action.

“If we need to redress wrongs from years gone by, then I’ll look at that,” he added.

Gainer has met regularly with the plaintiffs, involving them in the department’s promotional process: “There’s value added for all of us to continue to work together,” he said.

In the letter, CBC officials also state they plan to invite the agents of the class-action suit and their attorneys to address the caucus on the progress of the negotiations. The caucus did not extend an invitation to the Police Board.

“We would do it in a heartbeat,” said Gebhardt, who noted that he has not received a formal invitation to do so. “We would be happy to explain the case to them.”

If negotiations remain on track, they could be completed as soon as Labor Day, Gebhardt said. However, if the parties cannot agree, the case will return to court.

“We’re putting all our efforts into trying to work with the government for a fair settlement,” Gebhardt said.