Felicia Carson, Leslie Clark, Lisa Burton, and Tabatha Knight stand outdoors
Felicia Carson, Leslie Clark, Lisa Burton, and Tabatha Knight. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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Tabatha Knight and Leslie Clark were leaving the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice in October 2019 when a staffer caught up with them.

“Her exact words to us were, ‘If you’re looking for any justice from this office or the mayor’s office, you’re looking in the wrong direction. They’re not going to help you,’” Knight recalls in a recent interview with Loose Lips.

The two former Metropolitan Police Department officers visited then-Deputy Mayor Kevin Donahue’s office that day three years ago to report a culture of harassment, retaliation, and discrimination they observed and endured during their long careers. Donahue, who now works as Mayor Muriel Bowser’s city administrator, was unable to meet with the two women, but they made their case to an employee in the office.

In the hallway of the Wilson Building after the meeting, the deputy mayor’s staffer directed the women to Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen, who, as chair of the D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, oversees MPD.

Knight and Clark went directly to Allen’s office, where they were told they needed to make an appointment, Knight says. She sent an email requesting an appointment before she left, but says she never received a reply. (Knight later also reported to Allen that MPD was allegedly manipulating its crime statistics, prompting the councilmember to hold a hearing at which Knight testified in 2020.)

Fast-forward to 2021, when Knight and Clark joined a group of 16 current and former Black female MPD officers who are plaintiffs in three lawsuits filed last year. Together, the suits allege MPD leadership has discriminated and retaliated against Black female officers. The suits are collectively seeking monetary damages and back pay as well as a court-supervised investigation into MPD’s internal affairs division. The women who were fired or forced to retire are seeking reinstatement.

Each of the officers “has had to endure the victimization of an MPD enterprise-wide culture of race and sex discrimination and intense pervasive retaliation” for reporting or opposing unlawful discrimination, according to one lawsuit that has 10 plaintiffs and is seeking class action status.

“This is about ignoring Black women and ignoring the issues raised by Black women,” says the women’s attorney, Pam Keith.

MPD did not respond to LL’s specific emailed questions about some of the allegations in the three lawsuits. The department does not comment on pending litigation, but a spokesperson says via email that MPD is committed to fair and equitable treatment and will review the allegations thoroughly.

The allegations come at a time when D.C., like many other parts of the country, is reimagining the role police play in society. Keith offers these alleged patterns of retaliation and a lack of accountability for superior, often White officers, as examples of why police reform is slow and difficult.

“It feels on the street like nothing’s changing because nothing is changing,” Keith says. “A deep-seated police mindset tells them they don’t need to change.”

Knight says she and other female officers have raised concerns for decades to people in and outside the department, but they’ve gotten little traction. Now, with their claims pending before a judge, Knight and her fellow plaintiffs are also looking to inject themselves into the local 2022 elections.

“We’re trying to bring awareness to how the police department operates … and help with police reform,” Knight says. “What better way to reform the police department than to hear how we operate and hear the things that go on? We are trying to let the world know … [change isn’t] going to work from within the police department.”

Knight, who retired from MPD in 2021 after more than 30 years as a sworn officer, says she and others plan to attend as many campaign events for the mayoral and D.C. Council races as they can to raise awareness about their cases. One of their first trips, to a Ward 5 Council candidate forum, ended in a shouting match.

In December, Officer Kia Mitchell, joined a group of fellow former officers, and asked the five candidates running for the Ward 5 Council seat for their reactions to claims that Black women inside MPD have been discriminated against for years.

Every candidate expressed their version of support (anything else would have been political suicide) and escaped the question unscathed, except for Vincent Orange.

Sinobia Brinkley, one of the officers who joined Mitchell at the Church of the Redeemer on Girard Street NE, confronted Orange during the forum, saying they had reached out to him several times while he was previously in office but never received a response. Orange served as the Ward 5 councilmember from 1999 to 2007 and as an at-large member from 2011 to 2016.

Later, as Orange was on his way out the door, he challenged the group of former officers to post the letter they had sent him. Brinkley followed him outside.

“I went outside to question him as to why did he make that statement. Because we were not lying,” Brinkley tells LL. “He went on and on and he really acted in an aggressive manner toward me, and I didn’t like it. I said, ‘If this is how you treat the women, I can’t imagine what you do to the citizens.’ I said, ‘I wish I had recorded this interaction.’”

Knight says she and others could hear the heated exchange from inside the church.

“He was screaming. We were inside of the church and everyone inside of that room heard him,” Knight says. “He was like, ‘You just prove it. Y’all a bunch of liars!’ Pointing his finger. It was terrible.”

Orange disputes the women’s descriptions of the incident and says he supports their case. He notes during an interview with LL that they still haven’t posted the letter that they claim to have sent him.

Knight and Brinkley say they have sent letters to councilmembers for years, dating back to when Orange was in office. But they haven’t been able to find any that they sent to Orange specifically.

Keith says they have also asked Allen, who is up for re-election this year but does not currently have any challengers, to hold a stand-alone hearing on the accusations raised in the lawsuits. So far he has declined.

Instead, Knight says, they were told they could testify during MPD’s annual oversight hearing in February. But she fears their concerns will get lost among the testimony of other witnesses. “You get three minutes to speak instead of allowing each one of us to bring forth our complaints,” she says. “They’re trying to bury us in that process. Again we will be ignored.”

In an emailed statement sent via a spokesperson, Allen says several members of his staff have met with multiple plaintiffs in these lawsuits. He says the oversight hearing is a “good opportunity to address their allegations directly to the chief.”

The three lawsuits spanning hundreds of pages contain details dating back to the 1980s, touch on several divisions within the department, and include allegations from cadets, senior officers, and an assistant chief.

Two stories that stand out are those of Felicia Carson and Lisa Burton. Both women worked as investigators in MPD’s Internal Affairs Division, which is responsible for investigating officers accused of violating internal MPD policies and breaking the law. Carson, a sworn officer for nearly 30 years, claims her contract was not renewed in retaliation for taking time off to care for her daughter and in order to prevent her from participating in a disciplinary hearing where a White male officer faced potential termination. Burton, a civilian, is still employed with MPD.

In 2019, Carson was handed a case involving Officer James Craig, who was accused of grabbing a Black man by the throat and lying about the reason for that man’s arrest.

Craig and other members of MPD’s Narcotics and Special Investigations Division were searching a building on First Street SE. They recovered some ammunition, and as Craig exited the building, he walked past a group of men and said, “Beep beep,” according to Carson’s internal investigation, which is attached to the lawsuit. One man who lived nearby but was not a suspect told Craig to “Say ‘excuse me,’ you don’t say ‘beep beep,’” according to the investigation.

Craig confronted the man, saying, “What you gonna do?” and “Handle your business,” according to Carson’s investigation. 

“Not with that badge on,” the man replied.

“Scared ass,” Craig said to the man before continuing to his police vehicle.

Craig then returned from his vehicle to confront the man again and told him to go into his house. The man did not, and “without provocation, Officer Craig stood in front of [the man] and ordered him to back up several times.” The man refused to put his hands behind his back, so Craig “grabbed [the man] by his throat and physically turned [him] around” and handcuffed him, according to Carson’s investigation. Craig charged the man with resisting arrest. Prosecutors dismissed the case due to insufficient evidence.

In an interview with Carson, Craig insisted the man was trying to intimidate him and was interfering with his investigation. But Carson notes several discrepancies between Craig’s written report and the body camera video, which shows Craig as the aggressor and does not show the man interfering or resisting arrest.

Carson sustained two policy violations against Craig: one for lying and another for conduct prejudicial to the reputation of MPD. The investigation was sent to Assistant Chief Wilfredo Manlapaz, who, Carson says, added more charges to the list, including excessive force. A captain returned the altered investigation to Carson for her signature and said, “Felicia, I’m sorry, Manlapaz said he didn’t want to hurt this guy. Those were his exact words,” Carson tells LL.

Carson says the proper procedure would have been for Manlapaz to add a cover letter, not alter her investigation. The changes Manlapaz made allowed Craig to skirt the trial board, MPD’s internal disciplinary tribunal. Instead, Carson says Craig was allowed to strike a deal that she believes allowed him to cop to the lesser charges in exchange for dismissal of the more serious ones. Carson says Craig’s disciplinary hearing was canceled after MPD decided not to renew her contract. Craig is still an officer patrolling the streets. It’s unclear what discipline he faced.

“I worked at IAD for 19 years. There is not one case that I had where I felt like a member should be fired,” she says. “This member should have been fired.”

Burton, for her part, also watched the body camera footage of Craig’s interaction with the man and echoes Carson’s description. She asserts in the lawsuit that an officer found to have made a false statement—a mortal sin for police officers—almost always ends up in front of the trial board.

Burton has worked in IAD since 2016. During her time there, she says she’s listened to officers regularly tell racist jokes. She usually ignored them, until August of 2019 when she thought Officer John Hendrick went too far. Burton says Hendrick teased another colleague by saying they “had more excuses than a Black man going to jail.”

As he was walking out of the room, Burton says Hendrick added that the “actual joke” is “you have more excuses than a n—r going to jail.” He didn’t say the offensive slur because, Burton recalls Hendrick saying, “I don’t think I should say that word.”

Burton reported the offensive joke to MPD’s equal employment opportunity office, which the women’s lawsuits describe as one of the roots of MPD’s alleged retaliatory and discriminatory culture. The EEO office is supposed to keep complaints confidential. But Burton believes the office’s director, Alphonso Lee, leaked her complaint, and word eventually got back to Hendrick.

Current and former MPD EEO employees provided sworn affidavits in the women’s lawsuits. Rosemarie Lucero, who is still listed as an EEO investigator on MPD’s website, says in an affidavit that Lee “repeatedly expressed to me that women police officers are liars, conniving, deceptive and will do whatever to get what they want.” Lucero says in her affidavit that “Mr. Lee is vocal and blatant in his disregard of women. Mr. Lee does not fear being disciplined for his sexism because he has stated that he is protected by the Assistant Chief of the Internal Affairs Department … Wilfredo Manlapaz and by the executive management of MPD.”

In his own sworn affidavit, former EEO investigator Harry Carter echoes Lucero and says that Lee interfered in Carter’s investigation of Knight, Brinkley, and Officer Karen Carr’s claims of gender and race discrimination, saying they were “liars, and that he believed that MPD would be better off if EEO could find a way to move them out of their employment.”

Neither Lee nor Manlapaz responded to emails seeking comment.

After the EEO office allegedly leaked her complaint, Burton says she endured 18 months of bullying and harassment before she was transferred out of IAD. She says Hendrick now has a lead role on the Force Investigations Team, which is responsible for investigating officers who kill or seriously hurt civilians.

“Even if I take myself out of it, it’s highly inappropriate because if you have a White male agent who has these kinds of implicit biases, then how can he conduct internal affairs investigations where most of our targets are Black and Brown?” Burton says. “I can’t trust you to investigate anything with our children because this is how you feel about Black men.”

Other allegations in the women’s three lawsuits include a male officer undressing down to his boxers in an office where a woman was working, and another male officer pulling out his penis and peeing into a bottle while riding in a van with a female officer. The suits allege that the women were retaliated against for reporting misconduct, were sexually harassed, and were propositioned for sex. Knight says physical and emotional stress due to treatment from her supervisors and fellow officers caused her to go into premature labor several years ago, and she lost her twin daughters.

Keith says she plans to file a fourth lawsuit by the end of this month that will focus more directly on Lee and the EEO office.

The alleged mistreatment and retaliation has gone ignored for so long, several of the women tell LL, that they intend to seize their moment in the spotlight while their cases are pending. 

“If you want justice, the concept of justice is political,” Keith says. “Why would we only fight this in the court of law?”

Campaign events and candidate debates are their primary targets.

“Personally, I plan to attend as many as I can,” Knight says.