A police officer from Hastings, Michigan, has sued the city for discrimination after allegedly being on the receiving end of derogatory remarks and racial slurs when he shared the results of a genealogy test that revealed he was 18 percent African. Sgt. Cleon Brown claimed that his fellow officers and even the city’s then-mayor were involved in the racist taunts. Brown has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit worth $500,000 against the city, the police chief, the deputy chief, a fellow sergeant, and the city manager.
According to the lawsuit filed by Brown through his lawyer Karie Boylan, Brown took a genetic test through genealogy testing site Ancestry.com, through which he learned that he is “18 percent African American,” a result that he shared with his colleagues soon after. Upon learning of Brown’s ancestry, police chief Jeff Pratt allegedly called him “Kunta,” in reference to the African American character in the novel “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” At the same time, Brown’s fellow officers allegedly whispered “black lives matter” and pumped their fists whenever he walked past.
The lawsuit also alleged that when Brown shared his heritage with then-mayor Frank Campbell, the mayor responded by saying, “Oh, you’ll be alright.” Over a week later, the mayor, in an encounter with Brown and another police officer, reportedly told a racist joke and used the word “negroid” several times.
In addition, over the holidays, a black Santa figurine with the label “18 percent” was placed in Brown’s Christmas stocking at the Hastings Police Department (HPD). Shortly after, Brown filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, after which, officers unfriended Brown from Facebook, blocked him from certain pages on the social network, and even banned him from playing in the department’s annual basketball game for the first time.
The lawsuit claims that “defendants, and their supporters in the department, have created an openly hostile, discriminatory, stressful work environment” for Brown, adding that Brown’s gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD) was supposedly worsened by stress following the harassment incidents.
In an official statement, the City of Hastings said that the black Santa incident was settled with an apology from the officer who placed the figurine in Brown’s stocking. Moreover, the police chief has banned any further jokes about Brown’s heritage.
“The officer, who placed the Santa in Brown’s stocking then went to Brown to apologize for doing so, since he heard that Brown was upset about this incident. Sgt. 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,” the statement said.
“To the City’s knowledge, that was the last incident involving any teasing, joking or comments about Brown’s claimed African genetic test results,” the statement continued. Additionally, the City of Hastings argues that Brown has presented as white for his whole life, and as such is not covered by anti-discrimination laws.
“These statutes were meant to provide redress and legal recourse to a class of individuals who have experience [sic] discrimination and harassment for hundreds of years because of the color of their skin, not because a Caucasian now discovers that his ancestry may be linked back centuries (or perhaps not at all) to an area of the African Continent,” the statement said. “The City of Hastings has never considered Sgt. Brown to be African-American. More importantly, neither has Sgt. Brown.”
The statement also pointed out that “African American” is not included as a result on Ancestry.com.
The genealogy testing site reveals information about a person’s heritage across 26 regions or ethnicities, with nine categories under Africa: The service traces a person’s ancestry by analyzing over 700,000 genetic markers based on DNA taken from a person’s saliva sample. The site’s extensive DNA database, along with that of other genealogy websites, has been in danger of being accessed by federal law enforcement, breaching the privacy of millions of users.
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