Does Brookline Have a Problem with Black People?
Alston, who believes Pender was angry because the lieutenant thought he was faking an injury, reported the slur to his department’s second in command, according to his account in court documents. Incredibly, Alston says, he was told there was no rule against racial slurs. The town did not yet have a racial discrimination policy.
The lieutenant never denied that he uttered the slur on Alston’s voice mail, claiming only that he had been referring to a driver on the road. The fire department, Pender says, suspended him for roughly a week, had him take diversity sensitivity training, and transferred him from the station where he’d been for two decades. “You make a mistake, a very brief mistake not intended for anyone’s ears in the privacy of your own car,” Pender says, “and you have to pay for it for the rest of your life? Unfortunately, Mr. Alston couldn’t handle this with a handshake and a hug, which is what I intended.” Several years after the episode, Pender received a promotion to captain. He is currently serving as the temporary deputy chief.
Alston’s career, meanwhile, took a different trajectory. Among several plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the town, he is on leave from the department and says that he fears retaliation from his fellow firefighters. The town recently moved to end his paid administrative leave. “The town of Brookline,” Alston says, “has a lot of explaining to do.”
In December 2014, black police officer Estifanos Zerai-Misgun sat down with Chief O’Leary and delivered a snapshot of what it’s like to be a black cop in Brookline. Known to most around town as “Officer Z,” Zerai-Misgun described white officers referring to him as “FI”—for field interview, indicating a suspicious person—or inserting the word “black” into his radio call sign. He explained to the chief that bad locker-room jokes—including, he said, a white officer remarking that he couldn’t see Zerai-Misgun in the dark with his eyes closed and another officer wondering why a black officer would be let behind the wheel of an unmarked car—were in fact slurs. A police recruit’s girlfriend, Zerai-Misgun claimed, had called him the N-word at a party.
Afterward, at a meeting with the department’s 30-odd supervisors, all of them white, O’Leary reprimanded the staff, explaining that racial hazing within his department was “not acceptable and they had to stop,” according to court filings. O’Leary says he was unable to further pursue Zerai-Misgun’s allegations because the officer would not identify all of his colleagues who had made racist remarks.
During that meeting, Zerai-Misgun says, O’Leary singled him out as the officer making complaints, and soon the department began to retaliate. Zerai-Misgun’s bosses removed him from the detective program, prohibited him from participating in training exercises, and scrutinized his traffic-ticket count, Zerai-Misgun stated in court filings. A sergeant, he claims, went out of his way to remind him that he had “told someone outside of the department that we’re racist.”
“What did you expect?” Zerai-Misgun says O’Leary responded when he told the chief he felt retaliated against.
Hillary Schwab, an attorney for Pilot and Zerai-Misgun, blames town officials for doing little to address clear incidents of racism brought forth by Alston, the firefighter, and the two police officers. “I think it’s a combination of a refusal to acknowledge the severity and pervasiveness of the problem, and an impulse to protect their own,” Schwab says of the town’s leadership.
In response, O’Leary and town officials have ordered additional sensitivity training and multiple studies to examine the veracity of the complaints made by the police officers and firefighter. O’Leary denies that he failed to properly respond to complaints of racism or that the department disproportionately stops black people—saying that such grievances are all just part of the job, and at least he’s been transparent with reporting the numbers for nearly 20 years. “You can’t please everybody,” he says.
Throughout 2016, accusations that racism was alive within Brookline’s police department made headlines around the state and stunned many residents, but the deeper, more troubling issue might be that no one has been minding the store. In a town that prides itself on its liberal views and populist government, there is no central figure such as a mayor. Instead, Brookline has a dizzying number of citizen-stocked commissions whose opinions are considered by the town’s selectmen. But who in this labyrinth of government by committee was monitoring racial equality?
Not long after Brookline’s selectmen walked out on their citizens during last December’s town meeting, the diversity commission seized its moment. Created in 2014, after the fire department’s promotion of Pender highlighted the lack of black supervisors throughout the town, its stated purpose is “to be instrumental in eliminating discriminatory barriers.” Members include Ginny Vaz, a single mom of five and a graduate student working toward a career as a school social worker. She acknowledges the town “does a good job of talking” about racial inclusion but often misses the chance to bring much-needed diversity to decision-making positions—such as this spring, when a white man was chosen to be Brookline’s schools superintendent over a black finalist for the job. “I am the spokesperson for Brookline; I love living here,” Vaz says. “But I think there are things that need to be fixed.”
After much discussion about Pilot and Zerai-Misgun’s allegations, the commission delivered a four-paragraph statement blaming the board of selectmen for allowing “institutional racism” to fester. Ultimately, it identified the town’s handling of Pender as the snowball that led to the current avalanche. “In the past five years the Town has allowed a firefighter who, without dispute, used the N-word, to be promoted to a supervisory position,” the commission stated. “And the culture that such actions foster has led to situations which have brought us here today.” Commission members urged the board to address the situation “with actions, not words, now.”
Town officials did not appreciate the commission’s constructive criticism. Selectman Greene, once reluctant to walk out at December’s town-hall meeting, now lambasted the commission’s statement as an “embarrassment” and demanded that it be rescinded. Town counsel Joslin Murphy also questioned the factual basis of the statement and asked for a retraction “if it was not factually supported.”
The diversity watchdogs ultimately bowed, issuing a clarification that the statement was “not the product of any investigation by the commission.” Anthony Naro, an attorney and one of the members who drafted both the statement and the clarification, wishes he’d been more precise in his original language. “I didn’t anticipate another attorney taking that statement and calling it a finding,” he says. “There was no study. It was a political statement.”
Still, Vaz and Tyndal were surprised by the town’s defensive reaction, considering that the statement was inspired by testimony from residents and the simple fact that the number of minorities placed in charge of a Brookline department over the past four centuries could be tallied with the two fingers it takes to flash a peace sign. “It’s almost like men saying that sexism doesn’t occur,” says Tyndal, “but, ‘Go get me my dinner.’”
Though the town’s board members are apparently reluctant to talk about the commission’s statement (Greene and Wishinsky were the only selectmen who responded to interview requests), Wishinsky stands by the board’s decision to condemn it. “When you do an investigation, you look at all sides of a fact pattern,” he says, “and I don’t think they did.”
Recently, the board made a series of proactive moves, including contracting with an outside consultant to investigate the racial allegations. That consultant’s report, made public in June, was tepid, inconclusive, and jargon-packed, with no conclusion as to whether the town suffered from “institutional racism.” Recommendations included more training, more monitoring, and the hiring of more outside experts.
The town also hired a consultant to conduct a study on “the climate for diversity” in the police department. It was the second such study in five months. Submitted in April, the latest study concluded that “there’s work to be done” in the department, citing dissatisfaction among minority officers with the lack of promotions. The town, though, considered the results a stirring victory, issuing a statement that the “reports find no hostile racial climate or culture of racism exists in the Brookline Police Department.”
In the coming months, Brookline may prove a steady stream of income for outside consultants, but many of the town’s black residents, police officers, and diversity commission members feel they’re at the mercy of the town’s leadership, which appears more concerned with deflecting blame than owning the town’s race issues. Meanwhile, lawsuits filed by Pilot and other town employees wind their way through the courts. In September, a federal magistrate ruled that Alston and his fellow plaintiffs’ claims were hopelessly unclear. He recommended dismissing the lawsuit but is allowing them to refile the claims. Pilot and Zerai-Misgun’s lawsuit in state court remains on track, though the town is fighting it.
To resident and diversity commission member Dwaign Tyndal, though, what ails Brookline isn’t nearly so complicated. “We’ve been studied to death,” he says. “Like, come on, man—if you see your house is dirty, do you do a study about it? Or do you clean it up?”