BECKLEY – A former police officer’s racial discrimination lawsuit in one Raleigh County municipality has some to and end with officials agreeing to a six-figure settlement.
U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger on March 22 granted a joint motion filed by Damon McDowell, the Town of Sophia, and Tomi Sue Peck, Sophia’s former police chief, dismissing her from McDowell’s civil rights suit.
The motion stemmed from a mediated settlement reached between McDowell, 44 and of Beckley, and the town a month earlier in which the town agreed to a lump-sum payment in exchange for him dismissing all claims against Peck.
The terms of the settlement were not disclosed in court records.
However, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request submitted by the West Virginia Record, James Sheatsley, the town’s attorney, said the town, via its insurance carrier, AIG Property and Casualty, agreed to pay McDowell $600,000. Also, he said the town agreed to remit for McDowell’s benefit the “appropriate withholdings and social security tax calculations… to the proper taxing authorities” from its general revenue fund.
According to his complaint filed April 30, 2012, McDowell began working as a police officer in Sophia in Oct. 2011. From then until his termination nearly six months later, he was the only African-American in the department.
In his suit, McDowell alleges almost from the day he started work with SPD, he was subjected to a “racially-charged, hostile work environment.” According to the suit, this included:
-Pictures placed on the department bulletin board of a monkey with a caption saying “I talk like a monkey”;
-Fellow officers joking if he was from “One Foty-Fo Magnolia Street” and playing the soundtrack from the 1970s Sitcom “Sanford and Son” over the police radios; and
•Fellow officers either hiding his court papers so he would miss hearings or drawing penises on them.
Also, he alleged fellow officers created a fake memorandum from Raleigh County 911 for phonetic words to be used in making radio calls. In at least one instance, McDowell says he made a call over the radio using words from the fake memo.
In the suit, McDowell claimed all the actions were done with Peck‘s, and the town’s, full knowledge. However, no officers were ever disciplined, he says.
After he brought to her attention the allegations of a hostile work environment, McDowell says Peck started to fabricate ways to get rid of him. The first attempt came early last year when he was accused of drawing his service weapon without justification, he says.
When Peck demanded he resign, McDowell says he refused until she first conducted an internal investigation. According to the suit, Peck provided McDowell a letter saying was suspended until further notice.
On an unspecified date, Peck gave McDowell an opportunity to take a polygraph exam. During the exam, McDowell alleged Peck had the examiner ask him about other instances for which he was never questioned. Among those was stealing jewelry from a DUI suspect in early 2012, he claimed.
In the suit, McDowell claims two Caucasian officers present during the DUI stop were never questioned. When McDowell questioned her why they were not given a polygraph, Peck said, “Because, I’m not going to put my officers through that,” McDowell claims.
Also, McDowell said he was questioned about making inappropriate advances on a woman during a traffic stop in which he supposedly tore up the ticket. However, he was able to produce a copy of it.
Though he passed the examination, the suit says he was made to take a second one. After he passed it, Peck allowed McDowell to return to work, it adds.
However, he says the harassment did not stop. On an unspecified date, a photo of jewelry was allegedly placed on the bulletin board with a caption that said “We know ya’ll steal.”
Later, McDowell says an altercation between his daughter and her then-boyfriend would ultimately be used by Peck and the town council as a reason to fire him.
According to the suit, while McDowell was on duty in Sophia, Beckley police officers Timothy Capehart and Roy Redden on March 20, 2012, responded to a call of a domestic disturbance at McDowell’s home. After taking a statement from and pictures of McDowell’s daughter, who alleged her boyfriend cut her with a knife, Capehart and Redden took the boyfriend into custody.
However, the suit says the boyfriend was never charged. Instead, McDowell alleges Capehart and Redden became “consumed with illicit motivation to harm [him].”
On an unspecified day prior to the daughter’s altercation with her boyfriend, McDowell alleges Capehart and Redden stopped him while test-driving a vehicle. Despite informing them he was just test-driving a vehicle, Capehart and Redden had a K-9 sniff the car for drugs, he claims.
According to the suit, when Capehart and Redden discovered McDowell was tape-recording the stop, “they immediately fled the scene.” Despite reporting the encounter to SPD, McDowell says no disciplinary action taken.
After he was taken into custody, the suit alleges McDowell’s daughter’s boyfriend informed Capehart and Redden that he and McDowell were in Applebee’s earlier that day. An employee the boyfriend knew told McDowell his food or drink was “on the house,” the suit says.
In the suit, McDowell avers he accepted an offer for a complimentary Long Island Ice Tea.
However, the next day, McDowell says he was instructed to report to Peck, who informed him a warrant was out for his arrest for not paying his tab at Applebee’s. If he resigned, the charge of defrauding an innkeeper would be dropped, he said.
When he demanded an investigation, McDowell says Peck refused, promptly fired him and ordered another officer to follow him home to collect his equipment.
McDowell says he went to Applebee’s and found the server who offered him the complimentary drink. He says he confirmed the drink was complimentary, and he was never questioned by Capehart or Redden.
However, two days later, they amended their report to say McDowell left Applebee’s without paying for food, he said.
When he called Peck on March 23, 2012, to inquire about his final paycheck, Peck said there was a misunderstanding, and McDowell was suspended, not fired, McDowell claims.
However, he says he received his final paycheck on March 27 with a letter saying he was terminated effective the day before as a result of failing to meet with Peck on March 24 as she requested.
The final check, according to the suit, was for $770 less after a withholding.
About that same time, McDowell says he received a phone call from a U.S. Marshal saying he needed to appear in magistrate court to be arraigned on the defrauding an innkeeper charge. After appearing, records show McDowell was released on his own recognizance.
In his suit, McDowell claimed an Applebee’s employee encountered him two days later and said he recalled hearing Capehart and Redden coaching the server on what to say. However, Magistrate Richard D. Jones on Feb. 26 found McDowell guilty, fined him $25, and assessed $165.80 in court costs.
According to court records, McDowell two days later appealed his conviction to Raleigh Circuit Court. The case is assigned to Judge Robert A. Burnside, Jr.
As of presstime, a hearing or trial date has yet to be scheduled.
According to Sheatsley, McDowell earned $10 an hour while employed as a police officer, and Peck was paid $13.71 an hour during her time as police chief from August 2011 until December 2012. She resigned following her election in November as magistrate.
Currently, her salary is $57,500.
In his civil case, McDowell was represented by Charleston attorneys Maria Hughes and Mark Goldner.
U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, case number 12-cv-1340 (McDowell civil)
Raleigh Magistrate Court, case number 12-M-1566 (McDowell criminal)
Raleigh Circuit Court, case number 13-B-97 (McDowell appeal)