Investigation: Mississippi State Highway Patrol Discriminated Against Black Troopers

Investigation: Mississippi State Highway Patrol Discriminated Against Black Troopers

Published July 24, 2009

A federal employment rights agency that found evidence of racial discrimination within the Mississippi Highway Patrol has forwarded those findings to the U.S. Justice Department, opening the door to possible litigation over the issue.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission revealed the action in letters received by Department of Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson and by Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who filed the complaint on behalf of the troopers.

Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said he could neither confirm nor deny whether the agency had received the EEOC information. Miyar said the EEOC refers cases to his agency for litigation. He said the department can then do its own investigation, depending on the case.

The Justice Department could sue the state or could issue a right to sue letter to the NAACP, said Kenneth Milam, a Jackson attorney, representing the Department of Public Safety.

The NAACP filed the complaint with the EEOC in February on behalf of more than 200 Black troopers. The federal agency spent three months investigating the allegations. In June, the EEOC determined that the patrol had discriminated against blacks in regard to assignment, demotions, discharges, discipline, harassment and promotions.

Simpson said Thursday he had raised several concerns about the EEOC's investigation, but the EEOC rejected the state's request to reconsider its findings.

Simpson said neither he or Col. Michael Berthay, the patrol's director, was interviewed by an EEOC investigator. Simpson also said his agency wasn't provided the names, positions or other relevant information about alleged discriminatory practices.

"When we were denied access to that information, it led me to question the credibility and the reliability, whether or not a genuine and thorough investigation had been done," said Simpson.

The Department of Public Safety hired outside counsel after the EEOC released its determination.

The EEOC last month asked the department to begin a "conciliation process" and recommended steps the state could take to resolve the complaint. Those recommendations included paying a $1.5 million settlement and revamping the agency's promotion system.

At the time, Simpson said the EEOC report never outlined "specifics" of the discrimination charges: What was allegedly done, and to whom.

He also said the Black troopers had refused several requests for meetings.

But Johnson said the failure to meet demonstrates the department's underlying problem.

"That's what happens when state agencies don't have a legitimate grievance process that has the confidence of employees," Johnson said Thursday. "Why would any trooper risk their career and speak with an agency that has no track record and no state process to actually protect officers who come forward from retaliation?"

The EEOC office in Jackson did not return a call seeking comment Thursday.

The Highway Patrol has 607 troopers; 208 of them are Black.

Simpson said there had been no demotions within the patrol during the period in question, from Jan. 30, 2007, to Dec. 31, 2008. And, he said the patrol's hiring has been conducted in accordance with a federal consent decree since 1970.

Simpson said he knew of only one incident involving inappropriate behavior since he came into office. He said a trooper had forwarded a racially insensitive joke to every number in his state-issued phone during last year's presidential campaign.

"They brought that to my attention. Some of the African-American troopers told me about it," Simpson said, adding that the trooper was cited and suspended without pay.

State Sen. David Jordan, a Democrat from Greenwood, chairs a legislative committee that investigates state agencies. He said earlier this year that several Black troopers alleged they had been subjected to racial slurs. Jordan said some of the Black troopers have worked for the patrol for 10 to 25 years and believe they have been unfairly passed over for promotions that were given to less-qualified White officers.

Written by Associated Press

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