The Mississippi NAACP is condemning Department of Public Safety Commissioner Steve Simpson's decision to ignore a May 11 finding by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the department fired Horn Lake trooper Michael McField for racially motivated reasons.
"It is obvious that there is a structural problem within the Department of Public Safety as it relates to African American state troopers," Mississippi NAACP President Derrick Johnson said. "Commissioner Simpson should heed the investigation of the EEOC and begin to address the discrimination taking place within the department, so that individuals who are charged with the responsibility of protecting and serving the people of the state have the assurance of being treated as equals."
The NAACP filed a formal EEOC complaint last year on behalf of the Mississippi Central State Troopers' Coalition, which represents about 200 black troopers, including McField. The complaint claimed that department leaders promoted less experienced white employees over black employees, and that black troopers suffered "discriminatory practices and racial slurs with the knowledge and approval of Assistant DPS Commissioner (and Highway Patrol Chief) Col. Michael Berthay, or in many instances, committed by him."
Last October, Simpson approved the firing of McField—who was one of two troopers speaking publicly about the alleged discrimination, but DPS spokesman Jon Kalahar said the department had good reason to fire him.
"Obviously the commissioner stands behind not only the Mississippi highway patrol … but the Mississippi Employee Appeals Board," Kalahar said. "They backed up the highway patrol's ruling that he should be terminated and the commissioner stands with both those rulings."
The Mississippi Highway Patrol argues in papers filed before the Mississippi Employee Appeals Board that the commissioner sent McField his Oct. 30 termination papers after the department's performance review board found four of five charges against McField justified, including two incidents of failure to respond to accidents. On May 2 2009, dispatchers sent McField to work an accident in Tunica County, but McField instead called the Tunica County sheriff's deputy to respond. Later that same day, Kalahar said dispatchers sent McField to a 10:56 a.m. accident in Desoto County. He arrived on the scene late and allegedly was out of uniform, wearing tennis shoes, shorts and a jacket. Kalahar said department officials learned of McField's dress by pulling video footage of the accident scene from his car Aug. 20, 2009.
Kalahar said McField also failed to show up for a Biloxi security detail at the National Governor's Association Conference between July 15 -20, and offered no medical excuse.
The EEOC requested Public Safety send a response to McField's complaint, which included a list of his offenses that Kalahar said got him fired. But the EEOC still found reasonable cause to believe the department had acted in violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, even with the department's charges against McField in hand.
Equal Employment Opportunity Commission area director Wilma Scott opined in the decision that "after charging party complained, the evidence showed that his activities and movements were closely monitored by his superiors, and he was constantly singled out for criticism and discharged."
The department also fired black trooper Jerry Merrill, the second vocal complainant supported by the NAACP in its motion.
Kalahar said the Mississippi Employee Appeals Board also upheld department complaints against Merrill for "padding his citation numbers," and for not turning over illegal drugs confiscated from violators.
Jackson attorney Latrice Westbrooks, who is representing Merrill, said she has not yet received a response from the EEOC on her client's complaint, but is expecting one. Johnson said no more troopers spoke out vocally last year because they feared precisely the kind of retaliation from the department wielded against McField and Merrill.
The EEOC, which has no direct power over the Mississippi Highway Patrol, recommended the department re-hire McField and pay him $50,000 in compensatory damages and back wages from 2009—and for the department to reimburse McField's attorneys.
This opinion marks the second opinion favoring the black troopers since the NAACP filed the complaint last year. The EEOC rendered a decision on the larger Coalition complaint last June, and found the department in violation of the Civil Rights Act. The commission suggested several things to DPS, including restitution of up to $1 million for the officers.
The commission could eventually submit its findings to the U.S. Department of Justice, which will conduct its own investigation of the issue. This means the Justice Department will now be investigating both the Coalition complaint and McField complaint.
Kalahar said the department expected a different decision out of the Justice Department on both counts: "[W]e didn't feel like they did a thorough investigation, but we feel we'll get a fair shake out of the Justice Department because they have asked us for information and forms and we've provided it to them."