Lawsuit alleges Black Columbus police supervisor discriminated against white officers

Columbus Police Cmdr. Melissa McFadden poses for a portrait in her home in 2019. She filed a lawsuit in 2018 and spoke out against discrimination in the force, and in September 2020, she released a book about her experiences. Now she is the subject of a lawsuit that alleges she created a racist work environment that both Black and white Columbus police officers found to be racially discriminatory.

Twelve current and former employees of the Columbus Division of Police have sued Columbus city government officials in federal court, contending that they conspired to protect a police supervisor who allegedly created a hostile and racist work environment.

The lawsuit filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for Southern Ohio alleges that Columbus police Cmdr. Melissa McFadden created a racist work environment that both Black and white Columbus police officers found to be racially discriminatory and "questionable, alarming, offensive or hostile.”

The city of Columbus, Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther, Director of Public Safety Robert Clark and former Public Safety Director Ned Pettus are all named in the lawsuit and will be represented by the city attorney's office.

On Thursday, City Attorney Zach Klein's office said the city does not comment on pending litigation but takes all allegations of discrimination and retaliation seriously.

Sam Schlein, the attorney representing McFadden, said in a statement that he and McFadden "are deeply disappointed" that McFadden "continues to be subjected to retaliation for courageously speaking out about racism."

"Their lawsuit is nothing more than continued retaliation from those who wanted her to be fired in 2018," Schlein said. "She will continue to serve the City and all its residents with the same commitment to fairness and justice she has always practiced."

Lawsuit alleges racism, conspiracy to protect pattern of discrimination

The lawsuit, filed by the Cincinnati law firm Gottesman and Associates, alleges that McFadden, who is Black, often made racially charged remarks, creating "an environment designed to separate black officers from white officers, by discouraging friendships, making racially divisive statements and unfairly punishing black officers who disagreed with her views, through intimidation, the denial of special assignments, and threats of investigation."

The plaintiffs, who are both white and Black, allege that McFadden consistently made comments related to the race of other officers, and one Black officer said she told him he should not have married a white woman because other officers would be angry.

The lawsuit also alleges that McFadden made public statements at a community meeting that "African American males are unfairly targeted by white officers"; white officers “harass black people”; and officers “don’t have anything to do but harass black people."

Internal investigation previously recommended McFadden's removal

An internal investigation into the allegations against McFadden in 2017 was conducted and then-Chief Kim Jacobs had recommended that McFadden be fired. The complaints against McFadden alleged that she had fostered a "Black militancy mindset" and an "us-versus-them" attitude when it came to Black and white officers.

Pettus, who was the city's public safety director at the time, decided in August 2018 that the division had not met its burden of proof and did not fire McFadden.

McFadden said in a federal lawsuit she filed two months before Pettus' decision that the disciplinary actions against her were retaliation for her speaking out about what she saw as discrimination within the division.

New lawsuit alleges conspiracy to protect discriminatory behavior

The newly filed lawsuit references the internal investigation and said several city employees, including Pettus, "ignored extensive and compelling evidence of discrimination." The lawsuit further alleges that city officials refused to investigate allegations of misconduct against McFadden.

"Pettus made the ridiculous and unjustifiable decision to absolve Defendant McFadden of all administrative charges, including discriminatory actions to which she admitted during the investigative process," the lawsuit alleges.

McFadden received $2 settlement for discrimination suit

In June 2022, McFadden won her civil lawsuit against the city of Columbus yet was awarded $2 by a jury in U.S. District Court in Columbus. McFadden had filed the lawsuit against the city in 2018, alleging she was discriminated against by being reassigned following an internal complaint being filed against her.

McFadden's lawsuit originally stemmed from her reassignment to the division's property room in 2017 following a complaint accusing her of creating a hostile work environment and giving a sergeant a higher performance evaluation than deserved because he was Black.

Previous complaint filed against McFadden over book she published alleging racism

McFadden said other officers who had been investigated for similar types of complaints had not been reassigned, or if they had been reassigned, they were not subjected to the physically laborious position of working in the property room. McFadden said she suffered an injury while working in the property room that required her to take extended leave.

In September 2020, McFadden self-published a book about what she said were her experiences of racism while being a member of the Columbus Division of Police. The book, titled "Walking the Thin Black Line," resulted in a complaint being filed against McFadden with the police division's Internal Affairs bureau.

When the book was published, McFadden said she was scared of retaliation. However, in the book's introduction, she wrote that she was "finally bulletproof" while keeping her attorney "happily busy filing lawsuits against my employer."

McFadden, a lieutenant at the time, was later promoted to her current position of commander with Columbus police.



This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Lawsuit alleges Columbus police supervisor discriminated based on race