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Former police dispatcher sues Palo Alto VA

Federal lawsuit claims racial discrimination, intimidation

A former public-safety dispatcher for the VA Palo Alto has filed a lawsuit against the Palo Alto Department of Veterans Affairs for racial discrimination and intimidation after he attempted to report alleged police brutality by one of the officers, according to court documents.

Vincent May, an African-American man, claims he was purposefully and repeatedly denied employment as a police officer, was verbally and physically harassed, intimidated and retaliated against by a police sergeant who was his superior, according to papers filed on Oct. 14 in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

Ultimately, May was fired. He said it was after attempting to report abuse by his superior, who allegedly beat another VA employee to the point of hospitalization, according to the lawsuit. Oakland attorney John Burris, who has represented Bay Area plaintiffs in police brutality and wrongful death cases against minorities, is representing May.

Prior to being hired by the VA in December 2012 as a police dispatcher, May served for six years as a U.S. Marine and worked with the Richmond Police Department for three years. He was also a former East Palo Alto police officer, according to the complaint. He holds a bachelor's degree in computer science, a master's in business administration and a doctorate in telecommunications and aerospace engineering.

May applied six times to serve as a police officer at the Palo Alto VA between 2010 and 2012, but he did not get the job. Superiors allegedly told him he could not be hired because the department needed to hire women, and he was too old to work as a police officer. They believed younger applicants would have an easier time surviving the academy, the lawsuit states. May was in his 40s.

In early 2013, Sgt. Robert Burns, who is named as a defendant in the suit (his LinkedIn page spells his name Burnes), radioed a call to May stating that he was following a black male pedestrian engaged in suspicious activity. May informed a police lieutenant that an additional unit should be dispatched to Burns' location to ensure the pedestrian's safety. May told his superior he had concerns about Burns and his alleged treatment of African Americans and Latinos, according to the lawsuit. His superior allegedly told May to just do his job.

Minutes later, Burns allegedly beat and maced the pedestrian, Vincent Warren, a 26-year-old VA employee, with his nightstick. Warren was taken to the emergency room and has been unable to return to work due to his injuries, according to the lawsuit. Federal and county court records do not show that he was charged with a crime.

May later accused Burns of making an unlawful stop, saying Burns did not have probable cause to stop Warren. Burns allegedly responded by threatening to discipline May if he ever questioned him again, according to the lawsuit.

An undisclosed person asked May to keep a video of the stop and beating, which he planned to transfer to the chief of police for investigation, the complaint states. When Burns learned that May had the video, he allegedly harassed May and attempted to force him to give up the recording. May refused, as he was under specific orders to only turn the video over to the captain or the chief, the lawsuit states. Burns allegedly cited his authority as a sergeant and ordered May to give him the video, threatening May with reprisal, according to the lawsuit.

May protested Burns' behavior, and thereafter he was allegedly denied overtime, training opportunities and more lucrative work shifts, according to the lawsuit. In March 2013, as May again applied to become a police officer, Burns allegedly gloated that he was going to use his influence and role on the selection committee to prevent May's new attempt to be on the force. May protested to his superior, but Burns remained on the selection committee. May was again not hired as an officer.

Burns allegedly continued a pattern of intimidation and harassment toward May. He allegedly cornered May in the dispatch office and stood over him with a hand on his gun while angrily pointing at May with his other hand. He allegedly berated May, removed his hand from the gun and placed his other hand on his baton, according to the lawsuit.

May was fired on Aug. 5, 2014, for allegedly exhibiting disruptive behavior, the suit states.

The lawsuit accuses the VA of retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act; unlawful firing based on race and age; a hostile work environment; and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

VA Palo Alto Police Chief Ronald Jones and spokesman Michael Hill-Jackson said they could not comment on the case since litigation is still pending. Burns could not be reached for comment.

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