During her five years with the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department, Tiara Brown said she got firsthand experience with its culture of intimidation.
In one such instance, she said she reported what she believed to be an illegal stop and frisk to a superior.
Plainclothes officers from another unit approached a group of young Black men in an area she policed, lined them up against a gate and started emptying their pockets without any radio call prompting them to do so. Brown believed that the incident was unlawful and reported it to a female lieutenant.
The lieutenant asked Brown to write a formal statement and told her that the officers involved were going to be told who reported them. She then asked Brown if she still wanted to go ahead with a formal complaint, which Brown said she interpreted as a warning to keep silent.
So she did. Brown said the department's rules and policies require that the lieutenant escalate, rather than quash, her complaint.
This account is one of many allegations laid out in a more than 250-page class-action lawsuit filed Wednesday on behalf of Brown and nine other Black women, both former and current employees, against the Metropolitan Police Department. The women allege that they were discriminated against because of their race and gender, and that the division in charge of addressing such behaviors is run by a man who has repeatedly expressed hostility toward female officers and colluded with management to discredit women who come forward.
Three of the complainants, Sinobia Brinkley, Regenna Grier and Tabatha Knight, say they were forced out. Five others, Leslie Clark, Tamika Hampton, Chanel Dickerson, Karen Carr and LaShaun Lockerman, are still on the force. Kia Mitchell, who joined the force in 1989, retires this week. Brown resigned in December 2020.
The Metropolitan Police Department declined to comment Thursday.
"While we cannot discuss the specific allegations due to pending litigation, the Metropolitan Police Department is committed to treating all members fairly and equitably throughout our organization," Alaina Gertz, a police spokesperson, said in a statement. "We take these allegations seriously and we will be reviewing them thoroughly and responding accordingly."
Throughout her tenure, Brown said, the way she policed, particularly by talking with residents at every opportunity, was frowned upon by many of her white colleagues. Her "positive approach to policing," which included handing out care packages with socks, water, snacks and sanitary items to the homeless, made her an outcast among several of her coworkers, especially white male officers who would tell her that she was wasting her time and was foolish for trying to help people in the community, the lawsuit alleges.
But it earned her recognition: She was named the department's officer of the year in 2019, becoming the first African American woman to receive the distinction. Still, she decided to leave the department not long after.
Things came to a head one night last September while she was protecting the 7th District Police Station from protesters who were trying to breach the building after a police officer shot and killed Deon Kay, a Black 18-year-old. The protesters, many of whom Brown said were crying and visibly upset, eventually stopped trying to get in the building. As they chanted "Black Lives Matter," some of the protesters shined flashlights in officers' faces, Brown said. She understood why they were upset. But she said the response from white officers at the scene, who she said were rolling their eyes, and laughing at and antagonizing protesters, was unwarranted.
She said one of the protesters remarked about her colleagues' callousness.
"Officer Brown, look at your officers, they're laughing," she said the protester told her. "They do not care. He looked just like you. His skin matched your skin. And they are laughing, Brown."
She said she was deeply affected.
"All the things that he said, it really affected me because it was true," Brown said in an interview with NBC News on Friday. "And to see my coworkers act in such a petty way, such an unprofessional manner, it really hurt me.
Brown, 33, now lives in Florida, where she works for another police department.
The women allege that they had each complained multiple times about unfair treatment on the basis of their race and gender to officials in the police department's equal employment opportunity department and/or their managers, to no avail.
"They come together as a class here to describe how the MPD has, for decades, treated Black women police officers with contempt, to the point of systematic psychological abuse," the lawsuit states. "As is often the case, the abuse is often not visible by looking at one person, or one incident."
Brown and the other officers allege in the lawsuit that when they did report discrimination claims to their superiors and to the department's equal employment opportunity office, they did so at their own peril. They said they faced retaliation and, in some cases, were forced out.
Brown said in the interview there were times she and white officers responded to white supremacist rallies and that none of the white officers treated the people at those rallies the way they did the protesters outside the 7th District Police Station last September.
"What was the difference between situations like that and situations where you have people of color protesting?" she said Friday, adding that she resigned because she no longer felt safe at work.
"No one wants to come to work feeling like, if something happens, who is going to have my back? And there were many times I felt like that," she said.
After George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis police custody in May 2020, Brown said some of her white coworkers defended then-police officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly 9½ minutes.
"There were officers defending what he had done," she said. "At work. Imagine being at work with officers defending what this man had done."
Chauvin was convicted in April on state charges of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Floyd's 2020 death. He was sentenced to 22½ years in prison.
Mitchell, who joined the department in 1985, said in the lawsuit that after she complained about a white officer who took out his penis and urinated in a bottle while riding in a department vehicle, she was retaliated against for making "a big deal" of it. The officer she reported was promoted to a lieutenant shortly thereafter, the lawsuit says.
"MPD has maintained a pattern, practice, and custom of not only excusing misconduct from white male officers with respect to their conduct within the MPD, but also with respect to their interactions with the community," the lawsuit alleges. It also says that white male officers are the subjects of more excessive force complaints than any other group.
Clark, who has been with the department since 1989, said that on or about July 11, 2012, a white officer told her that he wanted to kill then-first lady Michelle Obama and showed her a picture of a gun that he said he was going to use to do it, the lawsuit says. Clark said she reported the threat to the internal affairs department because she believed it was her sworn duty to do so.
She alleges in the lawsuit that thereafter, her white colleagues treated her differently, she was isolated and shunned by her peers, and consistently given dangerous and undesirable assignments. She also alleges a colleague used an obscenity as he told her that month to mind her business, according to the lawsuit. Clark said she complained to the equal employment office, which she said did not take her claims seriously, failed to investigate or intervene in any way, and allowed her to continue to be subject to a hostile work environment. Clark retired in May 2014.
"I know that a few of the ladies, they tried their best to get their voices heard," Brown said. "The department tried to discredit them. If you're not on their side, they will try to discredit you, they will try to break you, they will try to make you quit."
The 10 officers are seeking compensatory damages and asking the court to appoint someone to overhaul the Metropolitan Police Department and to ensure it undergoes structural changes.
"I was good enough to be the first African American female to win officer of the year out of 3,000 police officers, but the moment I took a stand to say everything that I had seen, to bring it to their attention, I was discredited," Brown said.