Detective claims discrimination

Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Det. Santiago Mcklean, left, and LPD Chief Chuck Forbis.

A Lewisburg Police detective has filed a grievance with the Police Advisory Board alleging a plan to transfer him to the uniform division is discrimination, but the chief says the man needs more experience.

After a two-hour meeting, the Police Advisory Board adjourned Thursday night last week to consider both sides for a week so a thoughtful decision could be reached on Detective Santiago Mcklean's case when the panel reconvenes at 5 p.m. Thursday in the City Courtroom.

"I feel that I have been discriminated against based on my language and race," Mcklean wrote to the Board.

The detective had obtained a memo from Detective Sgt. Jimmy Oliver to Chief Chuck Forbis who asked Oliver to put his concerns in writing. Oliver said "Mcklean is a good person, but with his language barrier, he is unable to perform good interviews."

Mcklean told the Board, "If I hadn't found this letter, I would be on patrol today."

Forbis acknowledged Mcklean was hired with the idea that because he speaks Spanish he could serve as a link to the growing Hispanic population here. The chief noted issues raised by Oliver and planned to transfer Mcklean to the patrol division at no change in pay.

Mcklean is paid $36,600 annually, City Manager Eddie Fuller said. Another detective with five years as a patrol officer and two in plain clothes are paid $2,000 less.

Forbis says his plan to reassign Mcklean to the patrol division, at no change in pay, is to be a remedial, lateral transfer that could lead to reassignment as detective.

The question for the Police Advisory Board is whether to recommend that Mcklean remain a detective, or be transferred to uniform patrol.

Mcklean, 42, was hired in February 2007 by then-Chief Doug Alexander as a detective after McKlean worked for the La Vergne Police Department from October 2005, Chief Chuck Forbis said, adding that because of police academy schedules and other training, Mcklean had worked four to five months as a patrol officer driving alone.

Alexander told the board Mcklean was not the first or second choice for the position he was trying to fill in the winter of 2005-06. Other candidates were being paid more elsewhere.

Councilman Robin Minor, a Lewisburg Middle School teacher, criticized Oliver's letter as having "55 serious mistakes." But it and Forbis' memo to the Board spoke of Mcklean's speech as presenting challenges to people he interviews during crime investigations.

"I know I have an accent," said Mcklean, a naturalized U.S. citizen who emigrated from Panama. "But everything in this paper [from Oliver] is false."

Oliver's typed statement says, "I have read statements taken by Detective McKlean and they make no since (sic) to me." (Emphasis added.)

Oliver's points include: Mcklean's failure to get a "perp" to sign a confession; different descriptions of the dark color of a vehicle, and; discrepancies on whether confessions had been obtained.

"While the deficiencies he has relating to the language issue is a concern and hinders Detective Mcklean's performance, his fluency in Spanish is an asset to the department," Forbis wrote.

As Mcklean presented his grievance to the advisory board, he asked if anybody had a problem understanding him. Some acknowledged his accent, but all indicated they understood what he was saying.

"When you were hired, did we know you were Hispanic?" Board member Ronald Greer asked rhetorically. "This is America. If I don't understand you, I'll ask..."

Gary Davis, president of the local branch of the NAACP, attended the advisory board meeting with a number of other African-Americans. They applauded at times and expressed dismay at some comments, although some reactions were disputed by a board member.

Mcklean complained he'd not received training he needed and Minor defended the point, only to realize that Mcklean's desire to take classes hadn't fully been expressed: He wanted training, but hadn't asked persistently. However, Mcklean's first years on the job here included a period of building remodeling that posed challenges for management.

"Other detectives have been sent to school," the detective said. "Why not me?"

He also claimed that at times he'd be left alone to find his own way and learn the job himself.

Mcklean said he'd not been told of deficiencies until a meeting with Forbis and Oliver in early February when he was advised he was to be transferred to the patrol division.

"Are we like J. Edgar Hoover and keeping secret files?" Minor asked. "Aren't documents put in employee files to be signed by the officers?"

After McKlean found the memo by Oliver, he stopped eating lunch with him, but did continue to provide translation services, Mcklean said.

He says he gets to work early, has received compliments, and works hard.

"Now, I'm at the mercy of you, the board," Mcklean said. "I feel discriminated by my language, by my race."

McKlean cited several parts of the department's policy on disciplinary matters. Forbis said the issue isn't discipline so the sections cited don't apply.

McKlean's grievance raised other issues for the Police Advisory Board which was established to be an advisory panel, not a governing board, that could make recommendations about hiring, firing, promotions and demotions.

Several officers have been hired but haven't been reviewed by the Board.

Though Forbis considers moving Mcklean to the patrol division a lateral transfer and not a demotion, Mcklean saw it as a demotion.

The councilman on the Board reacted to the issue.

"There have been eight hirings in the last eight months and none have been brought to this Board," Minor said, interpreting the parameters of the Board's authority as over transfers. "If he was brought to this Board, we'd not have this grievance hearing...

"Something smells rotten here and I don't like it," Minor said. "I'm not the only one in an elected position who's displeased. I hope the people on this Board for the right thing."

Minor said he does not want to be involved in another case including federal protections against discrimination. R.L. Williams, the city's former stormwater director, attended the meeting.

The language barrier "is a very small part of the reasons for the transfer," Forbis said. McKlean "has one of the best work ethics I've known."

The issue for Forbis is Mcklean's lack of experience as a patrol officer when various police departments require two to five years of patrol experience before an officer is considered for detective duty. Forbis presented case studies about how transfers are not considered disciplinary or demotions.

Mcklean complained there were no warnings for him and said, "I just want right to be done."

"As do I," the chief said.