SAN DIEGO (CN) – A San Diego Police sergeant’s testimony Tuesday in his discrimination case against his employer and the city made one thing clear: the case is about more than just a couple racist cartoons.
Sgt. Arthur Scott sued the San Diego Police Department in 2015 on claims of discrimination and retaliation stemming from incidents involving racist cartoons posted in a police department locker room, as well as a 1909 cartoon used during training.
Scott says in 2011, someone posted racist pictures in a police locker room that depicted President Barack Obama as an African chief with the word ‘Obamacare’ underneath. Scott complained to a supervising lieutenant who told him he was being “hyper sensitive.” Eventually the pictures were taken down but no one apparently knows who removed the pictures.
When Scott complained years later, in 2014, about a racist cartoon from a 1909 San Diego newspaper displayed at San Diego’s police museum and shown to officers during a training visit was when, Scott’s attorney Daniel Gilleon told jurors, the “wheels of retaliation began.”
The cartoon depicted San Diego’s first black police officer, Frank McCarter, as an ape and used racial slurs to describe Asian-Americans.
Scott said Tuesday while other higher-ups within the department agreed the image should not be shown during police training, the assistant police chief strongly disputed the cartoon was racist.
One day in September 2014, Scott told jurors, he was at San Diego Police Department headquarters participating in an interview panel to select field training officers. Scott said he passed by Assistant Chief Todd Jarvis’ office and thanked the chief for helping to secure raises and additional benefits for officers, when the conversation turned to the cartoon of McCarter displayed in the police museum.
Jarvis told Scott he wanted him to know he did not think the cartoon was racist. Scott adamantly disagreed with Jarvis’ take on the cartoon.
“I said ‘Well chief, I disagree, and I’m sure if Officer McCarter was alive today he’d agree that it wasn’t a real depiction of him,’” Scott said.
The conversation ended when Jarvis glared at Scott, the sergeant testified.
“It made me feel uncomfortable and I got a little scared I got the chief unhappy with me and he might come after me,” Scott said.
During that sergeant training visit to the San Diego Police Museum, Scott said he and his colleagues were shown pictures of many of the department’s “firsts,” including the first female police officer and first Latino officer. But when McCarter’s accomplishments were discussed during the visit, a racist cartoon was shown rather than an actual picture of the officer.
“When I saw it, I expected to see a real picture of Frank McCarter. I looked at it and thought, ‘Wow this isn’t Frank McCarter.’ I thought it was offensive and had no place in our training, especially for supervisors,” Scott said in noting the cartoon violated the department’s policy on offensive images.
Scott pointed out the cartoon wasn’t shown in the context of discussing racism within the department, but was shown to sergeants during a discussion about McCarter’s success at the department.
During his opening statements on Jan. 12, Scott’s attorney Gilleon told jurors: “Racism and retaliation within the ranks of the San Diego Police Department – that’s what this case is going to show – racism and retaliation against one of their own.”
Gilleon went on to read to jurors many of the high marks Scott received during performance reviews and commendations he’s received since joining the force in 2004.
Those evaluations included: “Scott was the first one in the field and last one at the end of his shift,” “was always on time and ready to work,” has “excellent leadership qualities and strives to increase job knowledge and expertise” and is an “asset to the department.”
He is still employed as a sergeant but was transferred from the Southeastern Division, where he served the neighborhood he grew up in, to the Central Division. Gilleon said the “unwanted transfer” was an adverse employment action taken after Scott spoke up about racism and discrimination in the department.
Scott currently serves as vice president of the San Diego Black Police Officers Association.
Gilleon said Scott “did his job well, by the book, by the letter of the law” and was selected as a field training officer to teach new officers how to do the job. The attorney said the police department itself “spoke very highly” of Scott until recently. Scott even received a recognition letter from the ethics and integrity deputy, Gilleon said.
The sergeant also teaches criminal justice courses at ITT Technical Institute and University of Phoenix.
Scott often took on leadership roles and served as acting sergeant before getting promoted to a permanent sergeant position in March 2013.
When Scott’s attorney James Mitchell questioned him Tuesday about how he took on leadership responsibilities, Scott said communication was very important in his goal to “effectively administer justice and have a service mentality.”
City Attorney George Schaeffer painted a different picture of Scott during his opening statements, saying Scott had failed to report a racial slur he heard an officer use against another officer. Scott also apparently received a one-day suspension for parking outside his house while on duty.
Schaeffer disputed whether Scott had really complained about the racist Obama posters, saying the lieutenant Scott says he reported the incident to does not remember discussing it with him.
While Schaeffer didn’t dispute the controversy over the McCarter cartoon, he said the cartoon has “historical significance” and the police museum got the blessing of the president of the Black Police Officers Association before displaying it.
Schaeffer disputed Scott’s claim he’s been passed up for promotions after complaining about racism in the department.
“You’re going to have to decide if you believe these people [police officials] or if there was some kind of conspiracy to deny Mr. Scott a promotion,” Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer said Scott was “offered a fresh start” in the new division after some officials with the Southeastern Division “had lost confidence in Sgt. Scott’s judgment.” He denied the move was an adverse employment action, saying “he’s doing amazing” and “the plan worked” in that he’s succeeding as a sergeant at the Central Division.
The trial is being presided over by San Diego Superior Court Judge Kevin Enright and is expected to continue through next week.Follow @@BiancaDBruno
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.