Michigan cop Cleon Brown was surprised and “proud” to learn he was 18 percent African-American after taking a genetic test last fall—until his coworkers at the Hastings Police Department began taunting him with racist jokes, he says.
Brown, 49, who is white, filed a suit in federal court in April against the city of Hastings and several local officials for allegedly discriminating against him and retaliating when he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Brown has served as a Hastings police officer since being honorably discharged from the Army in 1998 and was promoted to sergeant in 2016.
The suit claims that after Brown “proudly told” other officers of the test results last fall, Hastings Police Chief Jeff Pratt called him “Kunta,” referring to Kunta Kinte, one of the main characters in Alex Haley’s novel Roots: The Saga of an American Family.
“He didn’t use the N-word, he called him Kunta, which brings up this image of Kunta Kinte in the movie: the slave with the neck collar and chain,” Brown’s attorney Karie Boylan told The Daily Beast. “That’s exactly what the chief thought: you come from slaves. And when my client challenged him on it, the chief and others laughed. They thought it was funny.”
Other officers and Hastings PD employees began whispering “black lives matter” while raising their fists when they walked past Brown.
Hastings, a small town of roughly 7,300 people about 40 miles from Grand Rapids, is not a particularly diverse community. As of the 2010 census, nearly 97 percent of the town’s population was white, while just 0.5 percent of Hastings residents—fewer than 400 people—were black.
When Brown told then-Mayor Frank Campbell he was black, Campbell allegedly told him, “Oh, you’ll be all right.” A week later, Campbell told Brown a racist joke “using the word ‘Negroid’ at least two or three times,” the suit claims. The police station has a Christmas tradition of hanging stockings with each officer’s name on them on its Christmas tree. Last December, the suit claims, Brown found a black Santa ornament with “18 percent” written on its beard stuffed in his stocking. Sergeant Kris Miller later admitted to putting the ornament in Brown’s stocking and reportedly apologized to him.
But city officials say Brown is to blame for the ongoing racial jokes. "Brown initiated this conversation and the joing and banter that followed," city officials wrote in a statement sent to The Daily Beast by Mike Bogren, the attorney representing Hastings. "The topic of Brown’s heritage was basically forgotten by the members of the Department until Brown would bring it up again so as to joke about it and do some mutual bantering with other officers about their heritage. After a month or so of Brown originally bringing it up, even that ended."
“The officer who placed the Santa in Brown’s stocking then went to Brown to apologize,” city officials said about Miller. “Brown emphatically denied that he ever complained about it or that he was upset or offended by it and he even seemed confused that the issue was being raised.”
But in January, Brown filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. According to the suit, Pratt and Dale Boulter, the deputy chief, asked “leading questions” and conducted “highly coercive, offensive, intimidating” interviews during the EEOC investigation process.
After Brown filed the EEOC complaint, he claims Pratt and Boulter unfriended and blocked him on Facebook, barred him from playing in an annual basketball game between cadets and police officers, and canceled several training sessions Brown was supposed to attend, including sergeants’ training and TASER recertification training.
According to the suit, Brown’s coworkers and superiors have essentially frozen him out, refusing to speak with him even when police protocol requires them to pass along information to him.
Brown’s attorney told The Daily Beast that Pratt asked him to resign from his position after he filed the EEOC complaint. “This wasn’t a response to joyful banter. This was derogatory, demeaning, insensitive, and racist,” Boylan said. “This was the chief of police, the mayor, the deputy chief and other sergeants making comments that obviously reflect their attitude toward African Americans.”
The city is also claiming that the Ancestry.com genetic test doesn’t include “African-American” as a result and that Brown’s claims are illegitimate since the test doesn’t definitively reveal what someone’s ancestry is, and claimed "a threshold question exists as to whether Sgt. Brown is, indeed, a member of a protected [racial] class." Boylan called their argument “ridiculous.”
“I think they should bring someone in to do cultural sensitivity training, because they don’t even understand how their treatment was wrong. And that’s the biggest problem. If this is how they treat someone who used to be ‘one of them,’ how do they treat people on the street?”