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Sunday, May 26, 2024 | Back issues
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Racial Slurs Won’t Carry the Day in Bias Lawsuit

(CN) - Jurors properly sided with a Wisconsin police chief in a discrimination trial despite "staggering and regrettable evidence of racial bigotry," the 7th Circuit ruled Wednesday.

Under the supervision of Police Chief John Wilson, the town of Beloit, Wis., used two or three companies to tow vehicles as needed by the local police department.

Anthony Smith's company, Flying A.J.'s Towing Co., never made it onto the list despite dozens of requests that Smith sent the department between 2003 and 2010.

He filed suit that final year, attributing the exclusion to the fact that he is black.

Officers testified that Wilson usually invoked racial epithets when confronted with Wilson's requests.

Though a jury concluded that race had motivated Wilson's decision not to include Smith on the tow list, it said Smith would not have made the list even without that factor.

Chief U.S. District Judge William Conley concluded that this mixed verdict precluded Smith's requested relief and entered judgment for the defendants, Beloit and Wilson.

"Regardless of the outcome here, the jury's finding of a racial motive should elicit embarrassment - not a sense of vindication - on the part of defendants," Conley had said.

Echoing that admonishment Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit noted that Wilson admitted to making some of the racist comments.

"He estimates that he used the term 'nigger' to refer to Smith 'probably less than ten' times between 2003 and 2011," according to the ruling authored by Judge Diane Wood.

"Such racism was, unfortunately, not aberrational during Wilson's tenure as police chief," added, writing for a three-member panel. "One officer testified that Wilson instructed him to 'keep the blacks out of the town of Beloit' by ticketing and towing their cars across the town's borders. The municipal court clerk testified that she heard Wilson use the word 'nigger' - as well as other racial slurs for black, Latino, and Arab residents - hundreds of times. Wilson himself acknowledged that there was a 'free-flowing use of racial slurs' in the town's police department throughout the relevant period."

One of the comments that Wilson disputes allegedly occurred after Smith made one of his first requests to tow for Beloit in 2003.

Asked for his input, an officer told Wilson of rumors that Smith was involved in drug dealing.

"Another officer who overheard the exchange testified that Wilson responded, 'That settles it then, that fucking nigger isn't going to tow for us,'" according to the 7th Circuit ruling. "Though denying the expletive, Wilson concedes that he made the rest of the remark."

A finding for the defendants is still not irrational despite "the overwhelming evidence of Wilson's racism," Wood wrote.

"The defendants presented testimony that Wilson inherited a satisfactory tow list in 2003 and that he had no reason to supplement the roster with additional companies. In 2004, Wilson removed Ace Towing from the list after receiving a complaint that the company damaged a vehicle, but there is no evidence that Wilson ever restored Ace or any other company to the vacated position."

"In short, the jury was entitled to credit Wilson's testimony that he simply 'didn't see any need to be putting on any more tow companies' after 2003," she added.

Smith's case is further undermined by Wilson's exclusion of another white-owned tow company that wanted to tow for Beloit, according to the ruling.

But the court took a dim view of Wilson's reliance on drug-dealing rumors to justify his exclusion of Smith.

"We are mindful that certain ostensibly neutral bases for a hiring decision may be predicated on impermissible stereotypes and biases," Wood wrote. "Particularly when coupled with Wilson's racist disparagement of Smith, the purported link between Smith and drug dealing warrants skepticism. Were this the sole evidence in the defendants' favor, this would be a much closer case."

The 18-page decision ends with a somber assessment of the case.

"We conclude by noting that no one should have to experience the kind of racial bigotry that Smith endured for years - an experience confirmed by the jury's verdict," Wood wrote. "We would have liked to believe that this kind of behavior faded into the darker recesses of our country's history many years ago. When the chief law-enforcement officer of a Wisconsin town regularly uses language like 'fucking nigger' in casual conversation, however, it is obvious that there is still work to be done. As a result of our holding today, Anthony Smith will end up paying statutory costs of $4,423.51 to John Wilson and the Town of Beloit, unless the defendants in the interests of a broader vision of justice choose to forgive that payment. We can only hope that the outcome of this case does not discourage future plaintiffs who seek to challenge official misconduct and vindicate the basic guarantees of our Constitution and laws."

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