Racial tensions

Local NAACP responds to deputy’s workplace lawsuit

In the aftermath of a lawsuit filed by a deputy claiming racial injustice and harassment, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea is viewed positively by the local chapter of the NAACP, which promises to keep a close eye on the case.

In the aftermath of a lawsuit filed by a deputy claiming racial injustice and harassment, Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea is viewed positively by the local chapter of the NAACP, which promises to keep a close eye on the case.

file PHOTO by ken smith

A lawsuit filed recently in federal court alleging racial discrimination and harassment against a Butte County Sheriff’s deputy has prompted a response by the county and an inquiry by the local chapter of the NAACP.

The lawsuit, filed in March by a Sacramento-based law firm on behalf of Deputy Michael Sears, names as defendants the Sheriff’s Office, the county, Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Duch and Lt. John Kuhn, as well as 100 unnamed county employees. It claims that Sears has suffered from a number of racially motivated incidents in his eight years with the office because he is of mixed race: half black and half white.

After learning of the lawsuit, Irma Jordan, president of the Butte County chapter of civil rights group the NAACP, requested a meeting with District Attorney Mike Ramsey and Sheriff Kory Honea at the Sheriff’s Office, a meeting that took place on April 24.

In a report sent to local media, Jordan said the local NAACP was “very concerned and deeply saddened” by the allegations in Sears’ lawsuit, which is why the organization reached out to Honea and Ramsey. She said she appreciated the quick response but was advised that, because of the ongoing litigation, neither the sheriff nor Ramsey could comment on the case.

“The NAACP wanted to impress upon the Sheriff its feelings about the situation, and to discuss the known allegations that were reported up to this point,” the report says.

Those allegations include the hanging of a black and white panda doll in a main room of the Sheriff’s Office—Sears allegedly was told the black and white represented him—use of the word “nigger” in Sears’ presence, assignment of the “oldest, smallest, and most damaged car in the sheriff’s fleet” to Sears, failure to gain promotion due to his mixed race, and backlash from superiors when he complained.

The lawsuit goes on to say that, as a result of the discrimination, Sears “suffered actual damages, including lost income, benefits, promotional and career opportunities, and other losses in an amount to be determined at the time of the trial.”

There is only one other black deputy currently working in the BCSO. Ramsey said to his knowledge this is the first such case filed against the Sheriff’s Office.

“Sheriff Honea was not on watch when this all began in 2007; however, he has inherited it,” reads the NAACP report. “We call for and believe that there should be zero tolerance to racism within any law enforcement department.” Jordan could not be reached for further comment by deadline.

The statement goes on to speak well of Honea, saying he “has always been willing to work with the community and hear the community views, even before he officially took office.”

Sacramento-based law firm Porter Scott Attorneys, which is representing the county, filed a response to the claims on April 15. In most instances, it repeats the words: “Defendants generally and specifically deny each and every allegation contained in said paragraphs.”

As for the panda complaint, the response says that the defendants were aware of “a small plastic toy resembling a panda bear … but they deny a racial component to it, that it was hanging by its neck and that Plaintiff found it offensive.”

The response also denies that Sears was assigned the worst car in the sheriff’s fleet and counters with this statement: “[H]e was assigned a 2009 Expedition with approximately 48,000 miles and at approximately the same time, a non African-American deputy was assigned a 2008 Expedition with approximately 70,000 miles.”

Sears’ suit also points to a commendation for exceptional work performance, which was issued in 2012 under the tenure of former Sheriff Jerry Smith but not entered into his personnel file until after Honea became sheriff last year. Adhering to legal advice, Honea declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Ramsey said he is also limited on discussing the case, although he is not named as a defendant. He said there is an ongoing independent investigation and that Sears remains on active duty, though he was slightly injured April 21 while responding to a call in Oroville. According to a California Highway Patrol press release, Sears’ vehicle was struck by an alleged drunken driver on Olive Highway.

While the NAACP believes Butte County “is going in the right direction,” the organization also says that across the nation law enforcers are “far too often using policing tactics that either end up in a shooting, a death or bodily harm from excessive force.”

The organization has promised to keep an eye on Sears’ lawsuit.

“We will stay abreast of this situation and we will conduct continuous follow-ups. We will not rest until justice is done.”

A court date has not yet been set.