By Charles Sercombe
Hamtramck hasn’t faced a bomb like this in generations.
On Wednesday, Hamtramck was in the Detroit media in all the worst ways. A lawsuit was made public in which a black veteran police officer asserted that racism among fellow officers and some in the leadership is rampant.
In the lawsuit, it is alleged that several officers commonly use the “N” word, especially Lt. Ronald Mathias.
Officer Dennis Nunlee, who has been on the force for 24 years, alleges that while on shift in February of 2008, he asked Mathias if he could take part in a training exercise that was about to take place.
According to Nunlee, Mathias said, “We don’t train the black officers, just the white officers.”
After the comment, Nunlee said a group of officers, described as “mostly friends of Mathias,” “busted out in loud laughter.” Nunlee said the incident made him upset and angry.
Nunlee said he asked those who laughed if they heard what Mathias said, but they denied it. However, according to the lawsuit, other officers confirmed Mathias said blacks do not receive training. Those officers said that under testimony during a deposition.
Nunlee is one of three African-American officers on the force, which totals about 50. The other two black officers were deposed and testified they have heard Mathias make racial comments in the past and that they thought he was a racist.
The lawsuit also says that Mathias attempted to cover up the incident.
The incident later came under review and Mathias submitted a three-page report explaining what happened. In the report, according to the lawsuit, Mathias said he was being unfairly singled out and that other officers make racial and gender comments but are not punished.
What’s not clear in context is a comment Mathias said he made to Nunlee during the training incident. According to the lawsuit, in the Mathias report, Mathias told Nunlee (“In a sarcastic tone”) that, “Yeah, right, like blacks don’t get to train, only whites.”
Does that mean to imply that when Nunlee was told he could not take part in the training that Nunlee assumed it was for racial reasons?
Mathias further went on to say that Nunlee rejected an offer to be trained, saying, “I don’t need no God Damned training.”
Nunlee denies he made that comment.
The result of the investigation led to the suspension of Mathias for 20 days. Mathias filed a grievance. The chief of the department at the time was James Doyle, who agreed to reduce the suspension to nine days and clear the matter from Mathias’s record if Mathias acted appropriately for the next 180 days.
Perhaps the most damaging testimony given was from former Hamtramck officer Dennis Whittie, who had been fired twice by Chief Doyle. Whittie said Mathias is a racist and used the “N” word frequently and also makes racial slurs against Arabs and Bengalis.
(After Whittie was fired, he filed a lawsuit against the department and city and settled out of court. He is now an officer with a downriver police department.)
Other officers also testified officers used racial slurs.
Nunlee’s attorney, Raymond Guzall, who’s with the law firm Seifman & Guzall of Farmington Hills, said in the lawsuit that despite the incident, Mathias was promoted to interim police chief for five months after Doyle retired, even though he scored behind another officer, Mark Kalinowski, in the test for the position.
Both officers failed to pass the test. According to union contract, the city is obligated to still promote the highest scorer no matter if he or she fails to pass the test.
Nunlee is still on the force and has four years to go before he qualifies for a full pension. Guzall said the work environment for Nunlee has been hostile.
“There’s still a continuation of what’s in that lawsuit,” Nunlee said.
The lawsuit asserts that Nunlee is often assigned to patrol alone despite his request to be given a partner. Nunlee also says he does not get assigned to work indoors as other officers do and that he fears he won’t have backup in an emergency.
Also according to the lawsuit, several officers have accused Nunlee of “trying to hit the ghetto lottery” by filing the lawsuit.
The City Council recently met to discuss a settlement offer. A settlement conference with Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Isidore Torres is scheduled for Dec. 10. That conference is not open to the public. A city official, who asked not to be identified, said Nunlee has agreed to settle with the city but is still seeking damages from Doyle and Mathias.
No other city official agreed to comment on the lawsuit because it is still pending.
When asked what he recommends to be done with the department, Guzall said that at the very least officers need to be put through a cultural and diversity sensitivity training. As for Mathias, Guzall said: “In any other department he would have been fired.”
To read the complete lawsuit click here:
Nunlee vs. Hamtramck Transcript