Former Pine Bluff police officer Chris Powell, who was fired in May after he allegedly sexually harassed a female he was assigned to train, claims in a civil lawsuit that he was discriminated against because of his race and his sex.
Powell also claims that his right to assembly, association, speech and political activity were violated, and he wants a circuit judge to void a city review board’s decision to fire him. Click here to see paperwork from the lawsuit (PDF file).
Named in the lawsuit are the City of Pine Bluff and Mayor Debe Hollingsworth, Assistant City Attorney Daryl Taylor, former city collector Albert Ridgell, city employee Delois Williams, former police chief Brenda Davis-Jones, Assistant Chief of Police Ivan Whitfield, Police Capt. Kelvin Sergeant, City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott, Human Resources Director Vickie Conaway, police officer Keyyonta Penister and City Council members Glen Brown, George Stepps and Thelma Walker. All of the defendants with the exception of Hollingsworth were sued in their individual capacities.
Powell is seeking compensatory and punitive damages against all the defendants, as well as reinstatement with back pay and benefits, as well as money for what the lawsuit described as “emotional distress.” Hollingsworth fired Davis-Jones on Jan. 1 and Ridgell last month.
The review panel, composed of Taylor, Ridgell and Williams, modified the original decision by Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks to suspend Powell for 20 days, take away his field training officer status and participate in counseling.
In a written explanation of its decision, the panel cited physical evidence of inappropriate physical contact between Powell and Penister and physical evidence of inappropriate text communication. The board also noted that “Recruit Penister reported the behavior despite the fact that she had not completed her probationary period and could be terminated without cause.”
That physical evidence included a series of color photographs showing what appears to be a white hand touching the right shoulder of Penister and the expressions on her face, and a single color photograph of Powell reflected through the window of a vehicle.
Powell is white. All of the defendants named in the lawsuit except for Hollingsworth are black.
“The decision to terminate (Powell) was arbitrary and capricious without a factual basis and the motivating factor was (Powell’s) race and gender,” the lawsuit says. It also contends that “black members of the Pine Bluff Police Department who have committed sexual harassment have not been terminated.”
The lawsuit also lists several black officers it says have not been fired despite allegedly committing various offenses.
Among the claims made in the lawsuit is that the review panel that heard Powell’s appeal “was not randomly picked.”
“Defendant Taylor has been made the permanent (representative) of the Pine Bluff City Attorney’s Office in part because of her race and gender,” the suit says. “Defendants Ridgell and Williams were selected by the City of Pine Bluff Human Resources Director because of their race.
“Vicky (Conaway) acting as a policy maker for the City of Pine Bluff picked all African-Americans for the Review Committee to insure (Powell) did not get a fair and unbiased hearing,” the lawsuit claims. It also claims that the city “(systematically) excluded whites from the review committee.”
Powell was a member of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association and was president of the Pine Bluff Police Department chapter.
The lawsuit says Powell publicly supported Hollingsworth in her campaign for mayor against then-incumbent Carl A. Redus Jr., a black male, who had hired Davis-Jones as police chief.
The lawsuit alleges that Penister, who was hired by Davis-Jones, falsely accused Powell of sexual harassment.
“Defendant Penister with the assistance of persons unknown created false picture evidence for submission to the Review Committee which they either knew or in reckless disregard for the truth relied upon pictures supposedly taken in January of 2013 which had in the background trees with green leaves on them,” the lawsuit says. “Any reasonable person would have known the pictures were not taken in January.”
Powell also claims that Davis-Jones blamed him for her termination, and “it is reasonably believed that Defendant Brenda Jones encouraged Defendant Penister to file a complaint of sexual harassment against (Powell) in order to attempt to get him terminated from the City of Pine Bluff Police Department.”
The lawsuit alleges that Brown, Stepps and Walker “used their positions as members of the city council of the City of Pine Bluff to retaliate against (Powell) for his association of rights being president of the Southern States Police Benevolent Association and his support of Debe Hollingsworth, urged and encourage the city attorney’s office and other officials of the City of Pine Bluff to terminate (Powell) from his position as a Pine Bluff Police Officer.”
On Tuesday afternoon, Brown said he had “no direct or indirect contact in the case,” and has had “no public or private conversations” regarding Powell.
An attempt to contact Walker was unsuccessful and Stepps did not return a call seeking comment.
The lawsuit claims that Haadden-Scott “using her position as the city attorney permanently (designated) one of her assistants to be a member of the Review Committee hearing the appeal of (Powell) who recommended that (Powell) be terminated.
“Althea Hadden-Scott had been a political supporter of the former mayor that was defeated by the candidate supported by (Powell) and was a supporter of Brenda Jones remaining a Police Chief for the City of Pine Bluff,” the lawsuit said.
Hadden-Scott declined comment on the lawsuit, saying that because Powell is claiming race and sex discrimination, the Arkansas Municipal League will represent the city in the lawsuit.
The complaint against Powell was initially investigated by the late Lt. JoAnn Bates, who directed the department’s Office of Professional Standards. According to the lawsuit, “she did not sustain the complaint.” Bates was white.
A second investigation was conducted by assistant chiefs Kelvin Sergeant and Ricky Whitmore, according to Interim Police Chief Jeff Hubanks’ testimony at the review panel hearing.
Both Sergeant and Whitmore are black and although Whitmore is not mentioned in the lawsuit, it said “Deputy Chief Kelvin Sergeant was a supporter of Defendant Jones remaining Police Chief.”
The lawsuit also names Assistant Chief Ivan Whitfield, who is black, and says “Defendant Whitfield encouraged false complaints against (Powell) to have him terminated as a police officer with the City of Pine Bluff because of his actions supporting Mayor Debe Hollingsworth.”