Police Chief Applicant Allowed To Go To Trial On Race Discrimination Claim

Joe Johnson, an African-American male, began working as a Columbus, Mississippi police office in 1974. In 1997, Johnson was appointed to Assistant Chief of Police. In 1999, Johnson was considered for the position of Police Chief, but was rejected by the Columbus City Council in favor of a white male.

In 2003, the City once again hired a new Chief. Johnson was considered, and was rejected in favor of another white male. At that time, the City Council included three black members and three white members. The three black members voted for Johnson; the three white members voted against Johnson. The white mayor, who broke the tie, voted in favor of the white Chief.

In 2006, the Chief resigned, and Johnson was appointed by the Council to act as interim Police Chief. The Council then began conducting a search for the new permanent Police Chief. By this time, the Council’s makeup had changed so that it had four white members and two black members.

There were three finalists in the eventual selection process. The Council split 4-2 along racial lines in voting to reject the two black applicants, including Johnson. The Council then voted 4-2, again split along racial lines, to hire a white male to be Police Chief.

Johnson responded by filing a lawsuit, alleging that the failure of the Council to select him for Chief was motivated by racial bias. The City moved to dismiss the lawsuit, contending that there was no evidence of any racial animus. A federal court rejected the City’s motion, and ruled that Johnson should be allowed to present his case to a jury.

The Court found that “the fact that the City Council voted along racial lines is circumstantial evidence that race was the deciding factor in who to promote. This is strengthened by the fact the Council considered two black candidates and that only the black councilmen voted for either candidate. There is also evidence Johnson was the top choice of the committee appointed by the Council, and was the lone internal applicant. Internal applicants have always been given the preference until 2003, and the 2003 decision to go outside the force has not worked well. This creates a question of whether the City was ignoring its past practices because it did not want to hire a black Police Chief.

“In drawing a distinction between the applicants, the City focuses primarily on their educational backgrounds. The white Police Chief has a degree in criminal justice; Johnson’s degree is in social science education. However, the Court fails to see much difference in the two candidates. Both men have worked for more than 20 years in law enforcement. It is quite reasonable to believe experience is the best teacher. Both men meet each of the objective criteria set forth in the job announcement. Based solely on their resumes, the City could have legitimately hired either candidate. Nothing distinguishes the white Chief to the point that a jury could not reject this reasoning as pretext in the face of evidence of racial bias.”

Johnson v. City of Columbus, 2008 WL 4603311 (N.D.Miss. 2008).

This article appears in the December 2008 issue