OROVILLE, Calif. - The Butte County Sheriff is headed to court in Sacramento after a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation in his office moved forward.
Two and a half years after now-former deputy Michael Sears filed a federal lawsuit against Butte County, the Butte County Sheriff's Office and 100 county employees, the case is headed to trial in February. Most recently, a judge denied the county's motion for a summary judgment to dismiss the case before trial, an accomplishment Sears called "huge."
Sears is now an officer with the Oroville Police Department. He said he filed the suit in hopes of eliminating all discrimination in the workplace after enduring nearly 10 years of it himself.
The Butte County chapter of the NAACP spoke this week on his behalf, saying everyone deserves answers.
"For this court to say no, we want to take this thing further, it says to us that there's something to this man's story," said Butte County's NAACP President Irma Jordan. "And we need to get to the bottom of it."
Jordan and Butte County NAACP Vice President William Bynum said the kind of racial discrimination Sears alleges is beyond disturbing.
"Racism is really rearing its ugly head nationwide, and in a lot of cities, and we don't want Butte County to be one of those that tolerates any kind of racism," Bynum said.
Among Sears' allegations, he detailed instances where coworkers hung a toy panda by the neck from a rope in the break room for three years, shown in photo below.
A deputy told Sears it symbolized him because, like Sears, it was half black and half white.
Sears said he complained about this, along with the frequent use of the "N-word" and other racist and derogatory terms used frequently by deputies, such as "Canadian Blue Gum."
Sears said his sergeant at the time, Steve Boyd, merely dismissed the complaints. Sears also said Boyd was a major part of the problem, alleging Boyd collected a book of "Nigger Jokes" from a gang member and shared it, off duty, with other deputies.
"If that's humor, then that's a culture that needs to be addressed," Bynum said.
In ruling the case should go to trial, the judge said Sears offered evidence that "use of racist terms was pervasive within the Sheriff's Office, that certain individuals within the Sheriff's Office were obviously uncomfortable interacting with people of difference races, and that racist jokes were commonplace."
The documents from the summary judgment outline examples of times several other deputies exhibited perceived racist behaviors as well. In one example, Sears claims that after an African-American citizen went to report a traffic incident, a deputy said, "Let Mike talk to him, Mike claims to be black."
Sears also said despite years of outperforming most other deputies, he was passed up for promotions several times. In the documents, Sears contends he was denied a variety of transfer opportunities. It also said "although he qualified for the positions, (the positions) were given to similarly situated or less qualified non-African-American candidates."
Sears also alleges that, based on race, he was assigned the "oldest, smallest, and most damaged car in the sheriff's fleet."
In a statement to KRCR News Channel 7, Sears said, "Instead of taking my complaints seriously, I was accused of having done the discriminatory acts myself."
He said he's not suing for the money, but for a positive change, referencing a quote from Ida B. Wells-Barnett. "The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them," the legendary civil rights leader Wells-Barnett once said.
"This is really an opportunity for the sheriff to really kind of step up the game and really say, you know, we may have talked zero tolerance in the past, but we're going to really make sure we live it," said NAACP member Tasha Levinson. The local chapter said it will be standing to fight with Sears every step of the way.
"It makes me realize that this is a lifetime struggle," Irma Jordan said. "I intend to stay in the struggle, you know, because so many people already gave their lives for it."
Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea said by telephone that this was an unfortunate event and they are hoping to resolve this matter in the future. He could not provide any further comment because of pending litigation and personnel issues.
Below is the full statement from Michael Sears:
"I would like to start by saying that the great majority of the men and women in law enforcement serve honorably, and treat all people with dignity and respect. However, we would all be remiss to suggest that any occupation is free from racism and discrimination in the work place, law enforcement included. The good men and women in law enforcement want to weed out discrimination amongst their ranks just as much as the citizens they serve do. I have had the honor of serving with many of those good men and women throughout the course of my law enforcement career, and they are hard-working, selfless, and kind deputies and officers.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett said 'the way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.' That is not always an easy thing for people to do, so let me do this— on behalf of the people who have not done it already, I am sorry if you have ever experienced racism at the hands of law enforcement. I am sorry if you have ever been discriminated against, been made to feel less than, been made to feel insignificant, been belittled, been treated with anything less than dignity. Racism and all forms of discrimination are still very much in existence, and it takes courageous, truly selfless human beings to take risks and call out discrimination when they see it.
When I first reported to my superiors the issues I was experiencing regarding racial discrimination at the Butte County Sheriff’s Office, instead of taking my complaints seriously, I was accused of having done the discriminatory acts myself. In fact, years later, when still nothing had been addressed or remedied, the lawsuit was filed, and Butte County Counsel Bruce Alpert told the media—not that he denounced discriminatory behavior, not that the county took such complaints seriously and would investigate and correct immediately, not that he was sorry for any mistreatment or discrimination—but instead said that he would fight 'the case vigorously.'
I am a peace officer who loves the community I serve. During my employment, I have been privileged to forge connections and build relationships with citizens from all walks of life in this county, and was one of the most productive deputies at the Sheriff’s Office, with record arrests; but I still was never viewed as completely equal by some. Speaking out, standing up, and continuing to fight when things feel hopeless is a very difficult thing to do. I owe more than I can ever repay to those who spoke out on my behalf with nothing to gain for themselves, risking retaliation and their own livelihoods to do so, simply because they knew it was the right thing to do. I am beyond grateful for the NAACP’s fervent support, and constant work fighting for the equality of all in our community.. I am hopeful that positive changes and extraordinary progress can be made.
There is still a lot of work to do and fight ahead, but some words that have kept me going when things were at their darkest, might encourage others who have experienced the heavy weight of inequality to never give up: 'And when they seek to oppress you, and when they try to destroy you, rise and rise again and again, like the Phoenix from the ashes, until the lambs have become lions and the rule of Darkness is no more.'”
The publicly available court records detailed above can be searched by clicking here.