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Jury awards $16M to 5 University of Washington officers in racial discrimination lawsuit

According to the 2021 complaint and trial testimony, the officers were targets of routine racial slurs that were part of a hostile work environment

University of Washington Police

University of Washington Police

By Mike Carter
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — A King County jury on Thursday hit the University of Washington with a $16 million verdict stemming from a lawsuit in which five Black university police officers outlined years of racist comments and discrimination by white supervisors and colleagues.

The six-week trial included dozens of witnesses, including university President Ana Mari Cauce, and involved testimony about dozens of instances of hostility and racism aimed at the Black officers, according to their attorneys.

Toby Marshall, an attorney for the officers, hailed the verdict as a victory for racial justice, vindicating the officers for exposing “discrimination within the department at personal risk.”

“The University of Washington has turned a blind eye to the problems in its police department for far too long,” Marshall said in a statement. “Our hope — and our clients’ hope — is that UW can no longer look away.”

In a statement, UW pointed to new Police Department leadership and said it is “disappointed” in the verdict.

“Our attorneys are reviewing options for our next steps, including the potential for an appeal,” the statement said. “This case alleged issues that took place largely under previous leadership and went unreported through official channels.”

According to the 2021 complaint and trial testimony, the officers were targets of routine racial slurs that were part of a hostile work environment. Among the allegations was the use of a racist slur by police supervisors and an instance where one Black officer found a banana and racist note by her locker.

The lawsuit alleged the UW administration knew of the issues, which smoldered for years, but did little. When a cadre of white police officers complained and eventually drove out the department’s first Black police chief, with some openly complaining that he was hiring too many Black officers, a university-sponsored investigation never considered racism as a motive, the lawsuit alleged.

The 33-page complaint detailed more than 100 separate incidents involving what the officers’ pleadings describe as “rampant, pervasive discrimination and retaliation” by fellow officers and supervisors.

The officers, the lawsuit alleged, “experienced widespread acts of racial harassment and discrimination within the Department,” including racist slurs, “racist stereotypes, physical intimidation and preferential treatment of white officers.”

The university statement called the lawsuit’s allegations “deeply disturbing and counter to the UW’s commitment to fostering a diverse, inclusive and equitable community.”

The plaintiffs included Russell Ellis, a 22-year law enforcement veteran; Gabriel Golden, a 10-year police veteran; Hamani Nowlen, a five-year police veteran; Damien Taylor, a 15-year police veteran; and Karinn Young, a 12-year veteran and then the force’s only Black woman.

The lawsuit claims a window was shot out at Nowlen’s Snohomish County home in August 2021, just months after the lawsuit was filed. Taylor said his mechanic told him someone cut the brake lines of his car in August 2022, according to the claim.

Of the five officers, only Nowlen remains with UW police, according to court documents.

The lawsuit alleged a racist culture has existed within the department for decades and was exacerbated by the university’s decision to hire a Black police chief, John Vinson , in 2009. That hiring occurred after other officers had filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in 2008, alleging sexual and racial discrimination. UW prevailed at a 2011 trial in that case.

Several officers and supervisors complained Vinson was hiring too many “unqualified” officers, according to the lawsuit, which plaintiffs claim actually referred to his hiring of Black officers, including the five plaintiffs, all of whom had prior law enforcement experience.

“Their campaign eventually succeeded, and Vinson was forced out,” the lawsuit alleged.


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