In the story below, a reference is made and a link provided to an investigative story published in 2019 by the Indianapolis Star about the National Police Association (NPA) and its fundraising tactics. The Star’s story recently became the subject of a defamation lawsuit brought by the NPA against the Star’s owner, Gannett Co., and the Associated Press (AP). That suit was preceded by a retraction demand that was rejected by the two news organizations, which stood by the accuracy of their reporting.
The suit alleges that sources relied upon by the Star and the AP in their stories have since retracted the opinions they made to the Star that the actions of the NPA amounted to a “scam” fundraising campaign, among other things. The Weekly has reviewed the statements made by these sources and the pleadings to date in the case, which was filed on May 3, 2021 in federal court in Indiana. We also requested additional information from the NPA, which did not respond. Based on our review, we do not believe the sources for the “scam” reference retracted those opinions, although they did clarify comments that had implied the NPA was not a legitimate, tax-exempt organization, which it is.
At such time as either the Indianapolis Star or AP make a correction, retraction or clarification of their stories, or the NPA prevails in its legal challenge, we will update our story or provide a further explanation in an editor’s note regarding the accuracy and conclusions of the Star’s investigation.
Meanwhile, on July 1 the Gannett Co. and the Associated Press filed a motion to dismiss the case. The litigation between the NPA and the two news organizations can be followed through PACER, the federal court case document website. The case number is 1:21-cv-1116.
When Palo Alto invited Bay Area artists a year ago to paint a "Black Lives Matter" mural in front of City Hall, the city had hoped to signal its commitment to racial justice and equity in the aftermath of the May 2020 killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
In doing so, however, the city also has attracted criticisms and a legal threat from its own police ranks, with several officers expressing concern about the mural's depiction of Joanne Chesimard, a civil rights activist in the Black Liberation Army. Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, was convicted in 1977 of killing New Jersey State Trooper Werner Foerster. She subsequently escaped from prison and fled to Cuba.
She was depicted in the second "E" of the 16-letter mural, along with the phrase, "We must love each other and support each other." The letter containing Chesimard's image was created by Oakland-based painter Cece Caprio, one of 16 artists whom the city selected to develop the mural. The project was completed on June 30 and the mural remained on Hamilton Avenue for four months before the city removed it.
Five Palo Alto police officers — Eric Figueroa, Michael Foley, Robert Parham, Julie Tannock and Christopher Moore — filed a complaint in Santa Clara County Superior Court against the Police Department and city last month, claiming that they have suffered discrimination and harassment because of their opposition to some of the imagery in the "Black Lives Matter" mural that the city commissioned in June 2020.
The officers are specifically objecting to the city's failure to promptly remove the image of Chesimard, who fled to Cuba and was designated by the FBI as a "domestic terrorist" after her prison escape. The five officers are also taking issue with the mural's depiction of a portion of a logo that they say is attributed to the New Black Panthers, a political organization that was founded in 1989 in Texas and that is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "virulently racist and anti-Semitic" (the group is distinct from the Black Panther Party). The complaint from the five Palo Alto officers includes a quote from King Samir Shabazz, former head of the party's Philadelphia chapter, who according to the Southern Poverty Law Center talked about this hatred for white people in a 2009 documentary. ("You want freedom? You're going to have to kill some crackers," he said, according to the nonprofit).
Notwithstanding the allegation, the image of the black panther, which is visible in the letter "R" on the mural, is an element of both the original Black Panther Party emblem and the one adopted by the New Black Panthers.
The complaint argues that Palo Alto police officers, including the plaintiffs, were "forced to physically pass and confront the mural and its offensive, discriminatory and harassing iconography every time they entered the Palo Alto Police Department." The officers, the complaint states, reported to their supervisors in the department that the mural and its iconography are "discriminatory and harassing." The police union also submitted two letters to the city expressing concern about the images, according to the suit.
The officers argue in their complaint that the city violated provisions in the Fair Employment and Housing Act pertaining to discrimination, retaliation and harassment. Each of the five officers had filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and subsequently received right-to-sue letters from the department.
Neither the law firm representing the five officers nor the president of the Palo Alto Police Officers' Association responded to this news organization's questions about the lawsuit. And while court records show that the attorneys filed the complaint in Santa Clara County Superior Court on June 4, the city has not been served with a lawsuit as of Tuesday, City Attorney Molly Stump said.
According to court records, the two sides in the lawsuit are scheduled to meet for a case management conference in October.
In making the case that the city engaged in "discrimination and harassment," the five officers claim that the city not only allowed the "harassing and discriminatory iconography" to exist in the workplace, it also encouraged and paid for it. And the city further discriminated by failing to "disapprove of and enjoin the underlying harassing and discriminatory conduct," the complaint states.
"Failure to abate the harassing and discriminatory conduct in and of itself is a form of retaliation for raising such issues," the complaint states.
The complaint also accuses the city and the Police Department of retaliating and discriminating against each of the five plaintiffs, as well as subjecting them to "adverse employment actions." These actions, the suit states, include refusing to eliminate the "harassing and discriminatory conduct" and refusing to investigate the complaints from the officers about the mural imagery.
The complaint doesn't specify how much the five officers are seeking from the city, though the complaint states that the damages are in excess of $25,000. The five officers, according to the filing, have "suffered and continue to suffer losses in earnings and other employment benefits, as well as past and future non-economic injury."
"This has caused damage to their professional reputation, their ability to promote, their ability to be selected for other units, and their ability to work," the complaint states. "Moreover, it has adversely affected their personal health and well-being, including medical expenses, that are anticipated into the future and may force an early retirement."
The five officers are not the first critics to express concerns about the mural's depiction of Chesimard. The Peace Officers Research Association of California, a lobbying group for police officers, issued a letter to the Palo Alto City Council last August stating that "the inclusion of Assata Shakur's image and quote in the mural is counter-productive" to restoring the trust between police officers and local residents.
"Regardless of whether the mural is protected free speech or creating a hostile work environment for your officers, to commit to a course of inaction would squander an opportunity to bridge that divide," states the letter, which is signed by Brian Marvel, the association’s president.
The National Police Association, a nonprofit group that solicits donations and lobbies for conservative criminal justice policies, also took note of the mural last July, when it circulated a petition last year describing the depiction of Shakur in front of Palo Alto City Hall as an "atrocity."
"For law enforcement required to enter the building is there any description other than a hostile work environment?" states the petition from the National Police Association, an organization that has itself generated controversy over its activities and fundraising practices, according to a 2019 investigation by the Indianapolis Star.
City Manager Ed Shikada's office acknowledged the controversy over the mural in a July 9, 2020 blog post: "In no way does the mural take away from the value we have in our police officers who serve our community every day."
"Temporary art is a means of expression on difficult issues and the Black Lives Matter mural is thought-provoking and spurs conversation," Shikada's office wrote.