The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

May 15, 2013

Former Sophia police officer awarded $600,000 settlement

By Jessica Farrish
Register-Herald Reporter

— A former Sophia police officer who alleged that he was discriminated against while performing his duties has been awarded a settlement of $600,000 from the town’s insurance company.

Damon McDowell, 44, was employed as an officer for the Town of Sophia from October 2011 until he was fired by his supervisor, then Sophia Police Chief Tomi Peck, in March 2012.

During that time, McDowell was the only African-American officer.

In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court, he alleged that fellow officers placed pictures of monkeys on the department bulletin board, with the caption “I talk like a monkey.”

The suit alleged that they also joked about if McDowell was from “One Foty-Fo Magnolia Street,” drew male anatomical pictures on McDowell’s court papers and hid the papers so that he would miss hearings. It was also alleged that they played the theme song from the 1970s sitcom “Sanford and Son” over their police radios.

McDowell also alleged that fellow officers created a fake memorandum from the Raleigh County Emergency Operations Center that reported new phonetic words would be used in making radio calls. McDowell used the words from the fake memo on at least one occasion, the suit reported.

He alleged that Peck, who resigned as chief and now serves as a Raleigh County magistrate, knew about the taunting and didn’t address it. Other town officials also knew, according to the suit.

The suit stated that once he’d reported the harassment to Peck, she began to look for ways to fire him.

On one occasion, he said, she accused him of drawing his weapon without justification and asked him to resign. He refused to resign without an internal investigation, so Peck suspended him, the suit read. He was allowed by Peck to take a polygraph but was asked in the polygraph about stealing jewelry from a DUI suspect, according to the suit.

Two white officers present during the stop were never questioned and were not required to take a polygraph, the suit read.

He was also questioned about making an inappropriate offer to a woman during a traffic stop then allegedly tearing up the ticket, but he was able to show a copy of the ticket, he alleged

The suit also mentioned at least two claims of alleged misconduct against McDowell by Beckley Police.

 

Peck fired McDowell in March 2012.

Days after his firing, McDowell says Peck told him he’d misunderstood her and was suspended, not fired. But his final check had an attached letter stating that he was fired for failing to meet with Peck on March 24.

His paycheck was $770 less after a withholding.

McDowell was fired for not paying his tab at a local chain restaurant, a charge McDowell alleged was false.

According to McDowell’s suit, a server had told McDowell that a drink from the bar was “on the house.” However, the suit alleged that Beckley Police officers later coached the server to say McDowell left without paying his tab.

Peck then fired him, according to the suit.

McDowell was found guilty in Raleigh Magistrate court of defrauding an innkeeper, a misdemeanor stemming from the alleged incident, in February. McDowell has appealed that conviction in Raleigh County Circuit Court.

After a settlement was reached, U.S. District Judge Irene Berger granted a joint motion filed by McDowell, Peck and the Town of Sophia that dropped Peck from the civil rights suit. McDowell was awarded $600,000 by AIG Property and Casualty, insurance carrier for the town.

The details of the settlement were first reported by the West Virginia Record, which filed a Freedom of Information Request with the town of Sophia after terms of the settlement were not disclosed in court documents.

 

Peck denied Tuesday that she’d allowed her officers to harass McDowell. When asked if she is racist, Peck said no, adding that she has worked in the justice system for years with people of different races and has never had trouble.

“I hired (McDowell),” Peck said. “They did not have a black officer.

“How in the world can he say I was racist? It makes no sense.”

She said she believes AIG representatives agreed to the settlement to avoid court costs and the cost of McDowell’s attorneys.

Beckley attorney James Sheatsley represented the town.

McDowell was represented by Charleston attorneys Mark Goldner and Maria Hughes.

Hughes declined to comment Tuesday, citing privacy agreements related to the settlement.

Sheatsley did not immediately return telephone calls Tuesday.

—  E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com