The N-word. A hanging panda. Deputy’s lawsuit says co-workers’ racism went on for years

Michael Sears.
Michael Sears.

A former African American Butte County Sheriff’s deputy who alleges he was racially discriminated against for years, including being called the N-word by a co-worker, will likely receive a jury trial in Sacramento federal court after recent mediation failed to resolve the case.

Michael Sears, who is half black and half Sicilian, alleges that the Butte County Sheriff’s Department engaged in multiple instances of racial discrimination against him during his 10 years there, and passed him over for promotion more than once because of his race.

When he ultimately tried to complain about the alleged harassment, he claims that the supervisor who heard his allegations failed to take them seriously, in part because the supervisor engaged in racist conduct himself, including calling black people “blue gums” – a racial slur – and inappropriately sharing a 19-page book entitled “N----- Jokes,” which was confiscated from a white supremacist gang member, according to a former SWAT team member who testified in the case.

Sears also alleges in court documents that a tolerance for racism was prevalent at the department, evidenced by a deputy using a swastika image as a computer screen saver without consequence and another deputy once using the N-word to describe former President Barack Obama without fellow employees reporting it.

Butte County Sheriff-Coroner Kory Honea said he could not comment on the pending litigation, but that he took the allegations seriously and has instituted changes at the department, including procedural justice training for about 200 employees and requiring employees to participate in annual reviews of updated discrimination policies with supervisors. The department has about 100 sworn officers and 300 total employees, he said.

“As with any organization, you can always strive to get better and be better, and that is something that we are always trying to do,” Honea said. “I still remain hopeful that we can resolve the matter. But without being able to talk about the matters that are the subject of litigation itself, I can tell you that I am working very hard along with the rest of the command staff to ensure that the Butte County Sheriff’s Office is a department that ... is free from discriminatory behavior of any kind.”

Butte County in September lost a motion to rule in its favor without a trial on the case, which has been winding its way through litigation since being filed in 2015. Mediation took place Dec. 14, but Sears’ lawyer, Grant Winter of Sacramento-based Mastagni Holstedt, said the case is not resolved and will move forward towards a jury trial, currently scheduled for early 2019 because of the court’s heavy caseload.

In trying to dismiss the case, Butte County lawyers argued that Sears does not appear African American and therefore co-workers’ actions against him were not motivated by race. In court documents, the county asserted that Sears admitted “that many people have mistaken him for something other than Caucasian or African-American, including Hispanic or Samoan.”

The county also argued that Sears waited too long to come forward with his accusations – some of which are based on incidents that took place years ago – and made his complaint of racial discrimination and harassment in 2012 only after a “series of disciplinary problems” that included being late to work multiple times, being involved in car collisions in his patrol vehicle and taking a tactical knife in a restricted part of the jail and making an inappropriate comment about it to a female employee there.

Sears said he couldn’t discuss the allegations, citing the ongoing litigation. But in a 2015 deposition, he said the county’s arguments don’t have merit.

“(W)e can’t really look at somebody and tell if they’re homosexual, so does that then sort of give us a free pass to degrade and disrespect gay people?” Sears asked an attorney for the county during his deposition when the lawyer asked if people could tell he was black by looking at him. “I’m really taken back and upset by the line of questioning. ... (W)hether I’m Pakistani or Hispanic or whatever the question may be, that there’s a question in somebody’s mind certainly does not give them an invitation or a right to .... use the N-word.”

Sears also said in the deposition that he delayed so long in reporting the alleged discrimination because “it’s a very delicate and difficult situation to be in.”

But eventually, Sears said he’d had enough, prompting him to report some instances of perceived harassment to a supervisor, Lt. Steve Boyd, in 2012.

“I think that I had sort of reached my limit. That’s generally what we do as humans,” Sears told county lawyers. “I think you can only sort of take so much. ... You know, you can become outcasted very quickly. It’s a very difficult decision to make. At the end of the day, I had a family to support, and that can also sort of place you in the cross hairs of the administration. To some degree you have to explain to them that they are operating inappropriately, and they can take great offense to that.”

Sears was hired by the department as a deputy in 2007 and after a short stint on patrol worked inside the county’s courthouses until 2011. Sears contends that another deputy working with him in this period “called him the n-word regularly,” according to court papers.

Sears said in a depositions that the deputy used the racial slur “in a relatively freely, unrestricted basis.”

Also while Sears worked in the courts, an unidentified co-worker in 2010 hung a plastic toy panda bear by its wrist from a string in a work room frequented by deputies, according to the lawsuit. When Sears asked about it, the suit alleges, a co-worker told him it represented Sears, because he was half black and half white. Sears’ biological mother is African American and his father is Sicilian. He was adopted as an infant by two white parents who raised him in Vallejo with nine siblings, six adopted from varying ethnic backgrounds including Korean, Vietnamese, African American and Creole, Sears said.

“We run the whole gamut in our family from all things,” Sears said in a phone interview. “It’s really neat because you get a perspective on all things. I’m a black guy who likes kimchi.”

The panda remained hanging for about three years, even after Sears voiced concern about it to the superior, court documents say.

Sears alleges co-workers also called him panda, and “chocolate thunder,” which court documents allege may have been a reference to dating multiple women employed by the county. The county argues that Sears didn’t object when called these names, and “it is reasonably inferred that he viewed (chocolate thunder) as a badge of honor,” according to 2016 court filings seeking a summary judgment to end the case in its favor.

“Moreover, the situation is muddied by the fact that Sears readily admits calling others, and them calling him, ‘nigga’ at the workplace, which could mean there was pervasive use of such unacceptable terms but the words were not unwelcome within the culture of Sears and his co-workers,” county lawyers wrote.

Sears disputed that “nigga” is the same as the similar racial slur, and said he used it in the context of “my nigga,” street slang for a close friend.

Unidentified co-workers also hung a poster of mug shots of celebrities in a courthouse bathroom, with Sears’ badge number written next to the photos of James Brown and Jesse Jackson, the lawsuit says.

“(M)y badge number was next to the photos of two African Americans that I have absolutely nothing in common with, other than our culture and racial background,” Sears said during his deposition. “So I’m not a performer or a preacher ... I immediately recognized what that was about and I thought it was extremely offensive and highly inappropriate.”

Sears was assigned back to patrol in 2011 because of the habitual tardiness, according to court documents.

Sears claims that in the months that followed, he was bypassed for two promotions. In May 2012, Sears complained to the supervisor, Boyd, about the panda and mug shots as examples of racial harassment. Shortly after, court documents say, the mug shots were removed.

In November 2012, Sears was involved in an incident in which he took a tactical knife inside a secure area of the jail where weapons were not permitted and showed it to a nurse. Sears allegedly asked the nurse: “Do you want a piece of my tac knife?” according to court documents.

Sears reported the incident to his superior, fearing the nurse had taken the comment as “sexual.” He was suspended for five days but appealed. During that appeal, Sears again raised the issue of discrimination, alleging that the suspension was tougher than what discipline deputies of other races might face. The suspension was reduced to three days.

In 2013, Sears claims that another lieutenant, John Kuhn, also made race-based comments over several months. In one instance, when a black citizen came into the station and was having trouble speaking with a white deputy, Kuhn allegedly said, “Let Sears talk to him. Sears claims to be black.”

Sears complained about the comments and Kuhn was sent to sensitivity training, court documents say.

In November, Sears left the sheriff’s department and took a lesser-paying position with the Oroville Police Department, according to his attorney, where he was previously employed as an officer before leaving to join the sheriff’s office.

Sears said he is moving forward on the case because the racism he said he encountered is “a real, real problem that these guys continue to think they can deny.”

“Their whole thing is they were just funnin’ around, it was just fun. Well, not to me,” said Sears. “What I want is justice, and that’s an odd thing to define. What is that exactly? The case isn’t about me. It’s about my daughter, it’s about my sons.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa