Black Detroit police officer sues department alleging discrimination

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News
A Detroit Police Department scout car.

A Detroit police officer is suing his colleagues, saying the department discriminated and retaliated against him.

A lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Detroit stems from white officers handcuffing and searching Johnny Strickland, who is black. The lawsuit targets the city, its police department, Police Chief James Craig and several officers. 

Strickland, a Detroit police officer for nearly 12 years, claimed that when he went to an unsecured crime scene in the city while off-duty on Jan. 22, 2017 and identified himself as a veteran on the force, a sergeant screamed profanities and called him “stupid,” “dumb” and “idiot.”

After Strickland was accused of not leaving the scene when ordered, the sergeant "unlawfully placed Plaintiff in handcuffs and detained him," according to the lawsuit.

Another colleague, who is white, tightened the restraints enough to hurt Strickland, the filing stated.

He was eventually freed and escorted to his car, which a K-9 unit had searched without Strickland’s consent, as a white supervisor allegedly warned: “This goes nowhere from tonight," ACLU lawyers wrote.

Strickland alleges he later complained to superiors about his treatment, but internal affairs charges were leveled against him in which “he was falsely accused of improper acts during and related” to the arrest. His lawsuit also asserts he never learned about the accusations until a lawyer’s Freedom of Information Act request was granted.

“Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident,” said Mark Fancher, racial justice attorney at the ACLU of Michigan. “Johnny Strickland is coming forward, despite the threat of retaliation, because he knows that what happened to him is just one example of a pattern of discrimination and harassment that was identified by the Police Department’s own Committee on Race and Equality. He wants these illegal practices to stop.”

The 2017 incident came about 10 days after an internal report by the Committee on Race and Equality, or CORE, acknowledged the Detroit Police Department had a “growing racial problem.” Citing black officers complaining of discrimination from white superiors and retaliation when bias issues were raised, the analysis also mentioned that despite the department being majority black, some units were mainly staffed by white male officers.

ACLU attorneys argue Craig disregarded the findings and “as a result, racial discrimination within the police force persisted unabated, leading to a humiliating and dangerous altercation in which Officer Strickland was detained, harassed and humiliated by a group of white police officers — his own colleagues on the force — without cause or justification.”

Sgt. Nicole Kirkwood, a spokeswoman for the Detroit Police Department, said she could not comment on pending litigation. Officials with the city did not respond to a request for comment. 

Strickland filed charges with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which on June 1 issued him a right to sue notice.

The lawsuit, which alleges constitutional and civil rights violations, seeks a declaratory judgment, an order preventing discriminatory acts, and compensatory and punitive damages.