Former deputy sues Spokane Co Sheriff’s Office over racist comments, discrimination, ‘toxic culture’

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SPOKANE, Wash. — A former Spokane County Sheriff’s deputy is suing his former department, saying he was subject to racist comments by a former sergeant and was also not protected from retaliation for reporting the comments to his supervisors.

Sgt. Jeff Thurman was fired in 2019 for what the sheriff’s office called “racist, sexist and threatening remarks.”

The sheriff’s office said the investigation stemmed from an internal complaint, in which a co-worker said he overheard Thurman on the phone saying “You ready to kill some (racial slur) tonight or what?”

Thurman was also accused of sexual harassment.

According to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court, the person who made the complaint, Andrew Richmond, was told his identity would not be shared with anyone.

Richmond’s suit says this case involves a “Black law enforcement officer that reported racist comments and actions by a white law enforcement officer i.e, breached the code of silence aka ‘the thin blue line’ by reporting a fellow officer.”

The suit acknowledges that Thurman was fired, but that Richmond faced further discrimination  “and retaliation to the point that his work environment became so intolerable that he had to quit and take a position with a significant cut in pay and rank.”

“There must be action taken to eliminate the code of silence – ‘the thin blue line’  – and it needs to start now,” the attorney writes.

According to the claim, Richmond was one of only two Black officers employed by the department at the time.  He was on duty in December 2016 when he said he heard Thurman make that comment about killing some [n-words.]

The suit says Thurman found out that Richmond heard the comments and that Thurman approached Richmond and told him he had only been referring to “inner city” Black people who “riot and loot.”

Richmond says he was shaken by the comments and didn’t know what to do. “Thurman at the time was a beloved local officer and handler of well-known K9 Laslo,” the suit says. Richmond says that between 2016 and 2018 “Richmond reported Thurman’s racist comments” to three different sergeants. One of those sergeants was the only other Black officer in the department.

“In violation of SCSO policy, none of those officers reported Thurman’s comments,” the suit claims.

In May 2019, Richmond made a formal complaint to his union about Thurman’s comments and also about “discrimination and retaliation related to his application and interview for the Air Support Unit.”

The suit says the multiple officers were interviewed as part of the internal affairs investigation. One officer said he was very close to Thurman and while he couldn’t recall any specific incidents, he said Thurman “regularly used the word [n-word] both in anger and in jest,” according to the claim. The suit says the officer also said “Thurman often ‘talked about killing African Americans and called Black people [n-words] when discussing the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Another deputy reported to IA that she overheard Thurman use the n-word on multiple occasions. That same officer reported that Thurman sexually harassed a female deputy.

The suit says that Richmond told the IA investigator that he was the subject of racial discrimination and retaliation related to his application to be part of the Air Support Unit. The suit claims he was passed over for the promotion and was told by a sergeant to “keep his mouth shut” about not getting the position. He says the department violated its own policy by not notifying him that he didn’t get the position and didn’t preserve the score sheets from the interview process.

According to the suit, Sheriff Knezovich found the retaliation complaint related to the ASU position “unfounded.”  He did, however, say Thurman’s racist remarks warranted termination.

The suit cites a news conference on June 13, 2019 in which Sheriff Knezovich announced Thurman would be terminated.

“Unfortunately,” the suit continues “Knezovich failed to protect Richmond after Thurman was terminated.”

Richmond says the day the firing was announced, SCSO circulated a memo in which Richmond was identified by name as the person who filed the complaint against Thurman. Richmond says he was in a meeting with 25 other deputies when the memo was read aloud and named him as the complainant.

“During the course of the IA investigation, Richmond had been repeatedly assured that his name would not be released,” the suit says. “Richmond immediately began being questioned by co-workers as to why he ‘randomly’ reported Thurman.”

The suit says he later learned that members of the ASU had listened to recordings of the IA interviews; Richmond says he was also told that it was discussed in meetings. Richmond says he reported that to his supervisor who advised that the Thurman investigation was closed.

The suit goes on to claim that the Spokane Valley chief and Spokane Valley commander had close relationships with Thurman and that the commander vocally supported Thurman’s use of the [n-word.]

The suit also says the Spokane Valley chief circulated rumors that Richmond was having a sexual relationship with one of his former recruits; that same recruit was the one who disclosed Thurman had used the n-word repeatedly and also harassed a co-worker.

Neither of those employees are still with the department.

The lawsuit says the Richmond discussed his concerns with Sheriff Knezovich. He said Knezovich moved him to a position in the downtown office.

“The move was not voluntary,” the suit says. “It was in response to the retaliatory, hostile work environment created by Richmond’s superiors.”

“Since the termination of Thurman, Richmond has had a target on his back,” it says.

In July 2019, Richmond “quit his SCSO job due to ongoing retaliation. He took a substantial pay cut and lost his rank by moving to a probationary position with the Spokane Police Department to leave the toxic SCSO culture.”

The suit claims Richmond was discriminated against because of race and was the victim of retaliation.

In response to the lawsuit, Sheriff Knezovich said “I am extremely disappointed that Andrew Richmond has taken this course of action.  The Sheriff’s Office denies that it took any retaliatory or discriminatory action toward Andrew Richmond. We thoroughly investigated Mr. Richmond’s allegations in 2019 and took care to observe all parties’ rights during the process.”