At least four University Police Department officers over the last four years have filed complaints alleging a toxic and dysfunctional work environment – and soon one will likely advance to federal court.
Former UPD officer Aaron Johnson’s case against his supervisors alleging racial discrimination and retaliation has spent two years moving through D.C. and federal agencies, but now Johnson said he’s preparing to take GW to court.
He alleges that he was fired in retaliation for a string of complaints he lodged against his supervisor, Sgt. Christopher Brown. He said Brown and other supervisors accused him of leaving his post, spread rumors about him and tried to unnecessarily investigate his behavior.
Johnson, 33, said the “stressful” environment at UPD made him depressed and anxious, so he began seeing a counselor and taking antidepressants.
“I’d never had any issues like that before. You felt like you were going crazy with the mind games they would play,” he said. “And then you’d go home, and when it was time for work you’d know what you were going to have to deal with.”
In August 2012 – about four months after his initial complaint – Johnson sent an email to UPD Chief Kevin Hay, his supervisors and the union that represents campus officers about the “hostile” work environment he experienced. He said he feared his job was in danger.
One day later, his supervisors suspended him for allegedly not filing the correct forms when he took a sick day. He then sent several more messages requesting meetings and union representation, and was fired in the beginning of September.
He said his complaints were “swept under the rug” as he was ignored or denied meetings.
Johnson’s experience matches what about a dozen former and current employees have signaled as a “culture of repression” and retaliation across University departments. In the police department, former officers say supervisors keep employees from feeling like they can voice their concerns.
Hay declined to comment through a spokeswoman, who cited the University’s policy of not commenting on pending litigation. Johnson’s union representative, UPD officer Jeffrey Kerch, declined to comment because officers are not authorized to speak to the media and because of his position in the union.
Johnson said Brown, who was one of his supervisors on the night shift, “black-balled” him by writing him up for not following rules like signing out for lunch breaks, even if Brown was not in the office on that day.
In May 2012, Brown accused him of abandoning his post in the Marvin Center, and tried to prove it by showing clips from security footage. Johnson, who is black, said the clips showed one white officer and a black officer who was not him.
He said Brown, who is white, specifically “mistreated” other black officers in the department and said he noticed white supervisors were often much closer with white officers.
At least one other former officer has recently filed a complaint citing Brown for inappropriate conduct. Linda Queen quit her job in the department in March after claiming she was sexually harassed by Brown and a former officer.
Johnson also said his supervisors wouldn’t let him patrol during his eight-hour night shifts, forcing him to sit at his desk. He said Brown would monitor officers at fixed posts on security cameras, trying to catch them “falling asleep.”
University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar declined to comment on whether Brown’s conduct is currently being investigated, saying the University does not comment on personnel files.
She added that all officers must complete online training about workplace harassment as well as training at the police academy.
Johnson said the human resources office never followed up on its promise to switch him to a different shift.
Alan Lescht, an employment lawyer who specializes in workplace harassment and retaliation, said though he does not know the specifics of Johnson’s case, the small window of time between Johnson’s complaint and his subsequent punishment likely points to retaliation.
“It’s just a fact in the workforce that people see with their own eyes that if you rock the boat, you can become a pariah,” said Lescht, who is also an alumnus. “Maybe you’re not fired right off the bat, but all of a sudden you may be put under a microscope and start being treated differently.”
Johnson also said the police force is understaffed and overworked, and officers frequently work long days after getting “drafted” to cover multiple shifts.
“You really can’t work properly when you’re drained from having to work 16 hours pretty much every day you come in,” he said.