The unheard voices of Black female police officers of Washington, DC

For years, Sgt. Charlotte Djossou was one of the public faces of Washington, DC’s Metropolitan Police Department.

She was on the fast track to become a detective sergeant within her narcotics unit. She said she noticed a problem.

Djossou could stay quiet. Or she could confront the issues head-on. She felt she had no choice.

Djossou never expected the other supervisors would be happy about her exposing them. Still, what happened next shocked her.

Djossou’s experience is a stark contrast from how city leaders say they treat women at MPD.

But Djossou’s Black female colleagues say she’s far from alone.

A dozen of them last year decided to pursue the first ever class action lawsuit by Black female law enforcement officers against a US law enforcement agency.

Earlier this year, Djossou and 10 of her fellow officers spoke with USA TODAY reporters about their experiences. Their stories portray MPD as a place where Black women at every level have been ignored, marginalized or pushed out.

As a result, the women, many of them highly decorated officers, saw damage not just to their careers, but to their lives.

Djossou was the first of the group to sue MPD in 2020. Her attorney, Lynne Bernabei, provided USA TODAY with a recorded interview of another officer who described receiving similar retaliation and harassment from some of the same supervisors Djossou said targeted her. That officer has since retired. Djossou, however, has continued working with the same supervisors she exposed.

Felicia Carson had retired and returned as a senior officer in internal affairs. She plowed through case after case in 2018 using the same investigative methods that earned her nearly three decades of stellar performance reviews.

Then she got the case of a police officer accused of roughing up a Black teenager outside an apartment building. After she reviewed a video of the officer grabbing the teen by his neck and falsely arresting him, she wanted to pursue harsh discipline against the officer. But she claims her supervisor told her that Assistant Chief Wilfredo Manlapaz, the head of MPD’s internal affairs unit, wanted to give the officer a break.

Carson refused to change her report or recommendations, she said, but she later found out that someone had changed parts of the report for her. Her supervisors, she said, asked her to sign the report anyway. She refused.

After that, Carson said, the typical high marks she received on her performance evaluations evaporated. Instead, her supervisors deemed her work “average.”

Even worse, she said, they marked her down for something she couldn’t control: her daughter’s health problems.

One day, Carson showed up to the office and her supervisor gave her a letter. Her contract with the department was terminated.

Pam Keith and fellow attorney Don Temple filed the lawsuit more than a year ago, alleging discrimination, harassment and whistleblower retaliation.

Since then, they say, they’ve been inundated with calls from other women alleging the same thing.

Keith and Temple have filed four lawsuits. The cases involve claims of retaliation against police recruits, unlawful firing of civilian workers and systemic race and gender discrimination against Black women officers. If a judge allows the gender and race discrimination case to move forward, it will become the first ever certified class-action case from Black women officers against a police department in the nation, affecting nearly 700 officers over the past 10 years.

Current and former Metropolitan Police Officers pose for a portrait at USA Today headquarters on Feb.  24, 2022, in Tysons Corner, Virginia.  Top row, from left: LaShaun Lockerman, Tamika Hampton, Chanel Dickerson, Charlotte Djossou, Tabatha Knight, Lisa Burton.  Bottom row, from left: Regenna Grier, Kia Mitchell, Leslie Clark, Felicia Carson, Sinobia Brinkley.  More than 20 current and former employees of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, have filed lawsuits against the District of Columbia, alleging that MPD management created a hostile work environment and retaliated against them for speaking out.
Current and former Metropolitan Police Officers pose for a portrait at USA Today headquarters on Feb. 24, 2022, in Tysons Corner, Virginia. Top row, from left: LaShaun Lockerman, Tamika Hampton, Chanel Dickerson, Charlotte Djossou, Tabatha Knight, Lisa Burton. Bottom row, from left: Regenna Grier, Kia Mitchell, Leslie Clark, Felicia Carson, Sinobia Brinkley. More than 20 current and former employees of the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, have filed lawsuits against the District of Columbia, alleging that MPD management created a hostile work environment and retaliated against them for speaking out.
Jarrad Henderson/USA TODAY

In all, Keith says she and attorney Donald Temple are working with more than two dozen current and former employees – including people who say they were ousted from the department for standing up to supervisors who wanted to bury discrimination and harassment claims from female officers. Some of them are men.

One, Harry Carter, spent more than 30 years working with the federal government processing Equal Employment Opportunity complaints. About a year after he retired, he took a part-time job with MPD working in the department’s internal EEO office.

Carter said that he refused to go along with his supervisors’ demands that he toss claims he believed had merit. So they fired him.

In a February press conference, Mayor Muriel Bowser and MPD Chief Robert Contee touted an initiative to bring more women into the police department.

Chanel Dickerson stood in a line of female officers just behind the mayor, appearing just to the right of Bowser.

Her allegations of discrimination reach the very top of MPD.

Even after the abortion, Dickerson said she fought through denied promotions, sexual harassment from supervisors and other discrimination as she worked her way through the ranks.

But she persevered, ascending to one of two assistant chief of police positions and becoming the highest ranking female officer. When she got that final promotion, she decided she would be an advocate for women under her command. Instead, she was eventually demoted.

Dickerson retired this summer.

At one point in the news conference, a reporter brought up the lawsuit and Dickerson’s participation in particular.

Metropolitan Police Department officials have declined USA TODAY’s requests for interviews, or to respond directly to the allegations.

“We are aware of the lawsuit, and will not comment on pending/active legal matters,” Public Information Officer Sean Hickman said in an email.

The solution, according to Keith, is to turn the system around. Stop punishing the officers who speak out. Start punishing the ones who target them.

Djossou hopes that change comes while she’s still with the department. But every day she goes to work and reports to the same people she complained against, her hope wanes.

Jasper Colt and Gina Barton of USA TODAY contributed.

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