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Black officers say Washington sheriff's department has a 'culture of animosity'

Three Pierce County sheriff’s officers, who are the highest-ranking Black women in the department, say they’ve endured racist harassment for decades.

Three Black female officers with the Pierce County, Washington, Sheriff’s Department say in a civil lawsuit that they have endured racist harassment for decades from colleagues whom they accuse of asking Africa-born employees whether they ate “zebra” for lunch and of saying Black protesters “should be shot or run over.”

The officers — Lt. Charla James-Hutchison, Sgt. Dione Alexander and Sgt. Sabrina Braswell-Bouyer — are the highest-ranking Black women in the sheriff’s department and have each been with the department for more than 25 years. In the suit, filed Nov. 1 in Pierce County Superior Court, they accuse “top echelons” of the department of participating in or ignoring racial and gender-based discrimination and harassment and of allowing a “culture of animosity towards African Americans and women to grow and fester.” 

Meaghan M. Driscoll, an attorney for the officers, said the women have suffered emotional distress, damage to their reputations and more. The officers have not specified how much they are seeking in damages.

“It’s created stress and anxiety for these women. They go to work with just an overwhelming feeling of dread,” Driscoll said. “They’re bringing this suit now because they’re at a critical point where the environment needs to end. The county hasn’t done anything in the decades that they’ve worked there. It’s untenable to go forward in the environment as it stands.”

A spokesperson for the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, Adam Faber, said the county “generally does not comment on pending litigation.” 

The women, all in their mid-50s, say the harassment began shortly after they were hired, according to the suit. A sheriff’s department official told James-Hutchinson that she had been hired in 1989 only to “fill a quota,” implying that she was not qualified for the job, the suit says. Alexander, who was hired in 1995, said that when she was promoted, she was told that it was only because she is Black. Braswell-Bouyer has been with the department since 1990, according to The News Tribune of Tacoma.

The women allege that Alexander and James-Hutchison were referred to as “angry Black” women and that James-Hutchison was once asked whether her hair left a grease mark on the wall. 

The women also witnessed white colleagues refer to Black people in the county using the N-word, tell employees to “go back to where they came from” if they did not like what was happening in the U.S., call employees “thugs” because of their hairstyles and perform the “Heil Hitler” salute during department training sessions, the suit alleges. One of the women heard a colleague say the Covid-19 vaccines should be “tested” on Black people before white people, according to the suit. 

“The list of offensive behavior condoned by PCSD is too numerous to fully detail,” the suit says.

Driscoll said sheriff’s department officials changed Alexander’s job duties in retaliation after she complained about harassment and tried to help other minority women with their own complaints. As a result, she filed a complaint internally with the county’s Equal Employment Opportunity unit. The women filed individual complaints with the EEO unit several times, according to the suit and Driscoll. But, Driscoll said, the complaints were not adequately investigated or resolved. An EEO specialist with the county did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

“The county hasn’t done anything in the decades that they’ve worked there. They’ve been ignoring the complaints, and, more recently, it’s allowed them to be retaliated against when they bring it up,” Driscoll said, adding that the women’s subordinates have started filing “baseless” claims of harassment against them.

There are 12 Black women, including the three officers, working for the sheriff’s department. Forty-seven of the department’s 614 sworn employees are Black, according to The News Tribune.

The suit comes as Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer is charged with one count of false reporting and one count of making a false or misleading statement to a public servant stemming from an incident Jan. 27, when he followed Sedrick Altheimer, a newspaper delivery driver, along his route and called 911 claiming that Altheimer had threatened to kill him. Troyer has pleaded not guilty.

Troyer, who faces nearly a year in jail and a $5,000 fine if he is convicted, has said the charges are “a blatant and politically motivated anti-cop hit job” by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, according to The Seattle Times.

A request to Troyer for comment on the charges and the civil suit went unanswered.

Troyer was recently added to the county’s “Brady List” of witnesses with credibility issues, according to The Seattle Times. The Washington BLM Alliance and state legislators have urged him to resign

“Recent incidents with Troyer, those are just other examples of the environment that’s going on,” Driscoll said. “It’s a top-down problem that’s being allowed to generate in terms of a racially discriminatory and hostile environment.”

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