Culture of discrimination

Lawsuit alleging racial harassment at Butte County Sheriff’s Office moves forward

Michael Sears paints a picture of pervasive racism at the sheriff’s office, where he alleges he was targeted because he’s black.

Michael Sears paints a picture of pervasive racism at the sheriff’s office, where he alleges he was targeted because he’s black.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

The Butte County Sheriff’s Office has a lot of work to do when it comes to professionalism within its ranks, according to members of the local chapter of the NAACP. In supporting a black deputy who says he was the target of racial discrimination and harassment while on the force—he’s currently on administrative leave—they say they’ve uncovered a widespread culture of intolerance.

“There’s evidence of a general lack of respect for people as people,” said Tasha Levinson, a member of the Butte County group. “Especially if they happen to be female or a person of color.”

Michael Sears, sitting beside Levinson, nodded his head in agreement.

“This county scares me,” he said.

Sears filed a federal lawsuit in 2015 against the sheriff’s office, Butte County, 100 county employees and, specifically, Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Duch and Lt. John Kuhn, both of whom are now retired. It alleges ongoing discrimination against Sears based on his race. Last month, the complaint cleared what Levinson and William Bynum, vice president of the local NAACP, say is a major hurdle, when the judge denied the county’s request for a summary judgment.

“The county tried to say there was no need to go to trial, based on the statute of limitations and on insufficient evidence,” Levinson explained. “By denying it, the judge said that these things were clearly continuing, that there are matters here that really need resolutions.”

The judge’s analysis says as much.

“Taking all of the facts presented to the Court as true, the conduct about which [Sears] complains was so pervasive and so blatantly racially motivated that a trier of fact could reasonably conclude that the conduct was all similar in kind, occurred reasonably frequently …” reads the court document, signed by U.S. District Judge Morrison C. England Jr. “Plaintiff has offered sufficient evidence … to show that he was subject to discriminatory and harassing conduct, and there are numerous triable issues of fact as to whether Defendants’ proffered reasons for their actions were legitimate or pretextual.”

Sears began working for the Butte County Sheriff’s Office in 2007 and was assigned to the courts for the majority of his tenure, eventually transferring to a patrol unit. During his time at the sheriff’s office, he says he was the target of several specific, racially motivated incidents as well as ongoing harassment.

Among the incidents, he points to a stuffed toy panda being hung from a string around its neck in the break room at the courthouse. Sears allegedly was told the black and white represented him, as he is half black and half Sicilian. After telling a superior that the panda was offensive to him, he says it was left hanging for three years.

“This panda, that represented Michael, was in the break room at the courthouse and it was lynched,” Levinson said. “That is so offensive. And it was left there for three years.”

Sears also alleges in the lawsuit that other deputies freely used the terms “nigger” and “Canadian blue gum” in reference to African-Americans; that a fellow deputy had displayed a swastika as a screen saver and was not disciplined; that he’d been assigned the “oldest, smallest, and most damaged car in the sheriff’s fleet”; that he’d sought promotion but was repeatedly passed over by less qualified candidates who were not black; and backlash from superiors when he complained.

In the years since the suit was filed, dozens of people have been interviewed by the court, including Sears and the officers named in the lawsuit as well as witnesses who attested to the discrimination. For example, during a deposition, a deputy described Lt. Steve Boyd as “one of the most racist people I’ve ever met” and says that after coming across a book called Nigger Jokes during an investigation of a white supremacist, that Boyd brought it over to his house and read the jokes in the presence of his children, according to court documents.

Another deputy testified that “I found the use of the N word to be extremely offensive, unwanted and unprofessional. The reason that I did not personally protest the use of the word was because as one of the only female law enforcement officers in the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, I believed that I was already potentially the target of harassment and discrimination and did not wish to call further attention to myself.”

The county counters Sears’ allegations in its filings with the court, submitted by Porter Scott, a law firm out of Sacramento, and Bruce Alpert, county counsel. Those filings point to Sears’ use of the word “nigga” toward his friends as acceptance of the term, outlines numerous incidents in which Sears was disciplined for being late or other offenses and alleges that he didn’t complain about discrimination until he’d been passed over for promotions. It also denies Sears’ allegation that he’d been assigned old patrol cars.

When contacted by phone, Sheriff Kory Honea declined to comment on the case, as did Assistant County Counsel Brad Stevens, who said it is his office’s policy to not comment on ongoing lawsuits.

For Sears’ part, he says he’s ready to take the case to trial. “I’m ready to go to Sacramento—it’s time to pay the piper,” he said.

Levinson and Bynum are also prepared. Bynum hopes some attention on the Sheriff’s Office will put an end to the culture of discrimination. “I think the grand jury needs to get involved,” he added.

“There’s a lack of professionalism in the whole sheriff’s office, a culture that says it’s just OK. And nobody has any idea that it really isn’t,” Levinson said.