Virginia Officer Fired for Racial Bias After Stopping Chief’s Brother; New Chief Rehires Him

A black man turns from a police officer and puts a cigarette in his pocket. The officer stops him, handcuffs him, questions him about illegal drugs and outstanding warrants. 

It’s the kind of interaction that happens every day. But in Alexandria, Va. two years ago, the black man Officer Brandon Smith stopped was so insulted that he called his brother, Earl L. Cook., who happened to be the chief of police.

Earl Cook told his brother that he could file a complaint, and Smith was fired for a stop deemed illegal and racially biased. But a new chief has rehired him, and supporters say it was Smith who was mistreated.

The dispute may not be over. The man who was stopped, Harold Cook, is consulting with an attorney about taking further action.

The case sheds light on the way cities nationwide are grappling with disputes over how often — and why — black men are detained by police. Last year, the president of the largest police management organization apologized for historical mistreatment of minorities by officers, and President Barack Obama had pushed for better training to confront racial bias in police forces.

President Trump, expressing concern that police were not getting needed support, has pushed back against what he describes as “unfair defamation and vilification.”

Earl Cook says there needs to be accountability for even small instances of discrimination to build trust and avoid bigger confrontations.

“Investigative stops is a hot-button item, has been for a long, long time. And unfortunately, we haven’t been immune in the police department from some stops that are ill advised,” said Cook, who retired last year. “If you turn a blind eye, then you’re not only emboldening that person who transgressed but you’re also, I think, lessening the justice for the victim.”

Smith did not respond to requests for comment. But the police union and others in city government say that he was unjustly fired over what was, at most, a minor mistake. Smith himself argued in court that nepotism was a factor.

Smith “is a proactive officer who knows the law and applies it fairly and accurately,” said Will Oakley, Smith’s union representative in the department. “You see in other cities the racial issues, the heavy-handed policing — you don’t see that here. The rank-and-file officers aren’t going to tolerate racial bias, the union wouldn’t support anybody with racial bias.”

‘I wanted an apology’

Although such personnel disputes are usually secret, the details of the complaint against Smith were made public when he filed a lawsuit fighting his termination.

The encounter began as Cook, 59, was going to do laundry near his Taylor Run home on July 16, 2015 and saw Smith pull up in an unmarked police cruiser. He says he paid the officer no mind. He was coming off a long day with his fiancee, who was undergoing cancer treatment. Cook had two bottles of detergent in one hand and an unlit cigarette in the other; he turned around and put the cigarette in his pocket to fish out the keys to his truck. When Smith repeatedly yelled “Stop!” Cook recalled assuming that the officer was calling to someone else.

But Smith told investigators he thought Cook was ignoring a demand from an officer and hiding something in his pocket.

It “looked like a cigarette,” Smith said in interviews with investigators, but could have been a “joint” or a “dipper,” slang for a cigarette soaked in PCP.

According to both men’s accounts, Smith approached Cook, pulled the hand holding the cigarette out of his pocket and handcuffed him. Cook said Smith then pulled out his wallet and ran his license plate for outstanding warrants.

Cook recalled that Smith continued to suggest that the cigarette contained illegal drugs. He says he protested, saying he had a sick fiancee at home. By the way, he added, his brother was the city’s police chief.

Smith thought Cook was probably lying. He asked whether he and the chief shared a mother, a question Cook found offensive. According to court documents, Smith later said that he thought it would be less likely that two black people would share a father.

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Source: The Washington Post | Rachel Weiner