Insurers pay $600K in small-town W.Va. racism case

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Sophia_Sign_s.jpg
by Vicki Smith
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) – Insurance companies will pay $600,000 to a former officer who sued the Sophia Police Department over claims he was harassed and fired because he is Black, Mayor Danny Barr said Wednesday.

That payout is more than the small West Virginia town’s entire $560,000 annual budget. While there’s no immediate cost to taxpayers, Barr said he worries the deal with former officer Damon McDowell may eventually raise insurance rates for a community of just 1,334 people.

Barr said the town was informed of, but not involved in, the confidential settlement that McDowell reached with the insurance companies in March.

Police Chief Tomi Peck has denied any wrongdoing, and the settlement does not require any such admission. She has previously said she fired McDowell after he left an Applebee’s in Beckley without paying his bill.

But McDowell, who was the only black officer on the force, claimed he was the victim of a conspiracy cooked up to force him to resign.

He was fired last year after just six months on the job. McDowell, 44, contends it was the culmination of harassment schemes that included hiding paperwork so he’d miss court appearances, drawing penises on his papers and telling jokes with a racial epithet in his presence. The federal lawsuit also claimed McDowell was denied training opportunities in favor of white officers, even when one had already resigned and the other had less seniority.

McDowell’s attorney, Maria Hughes, declined comment Wednesday, citing the judge’s order that the settlement remain confidential.

But Barr said acts of racism will not be tolerated and anyone who experiences, witnesses or even hears about them is obligated to report it. Police department policies were recently updated to make that clear, he said.

“It’s embarrassing to the town, it’s embarrassing to the people, it’s embarrassing to everybody,” said Barr, who has been mayor off and on for 17 years in the tiny Raleigh County community perhaps best known as the hometown of the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd.

Among other things, the 44-year-old McDowell charged that fellow officers told him he talked like a monkey, repeatedly played YouTube videos of a black man screaming “Rack ‘em!” and played the soundtrack to “Sanford and Son,” a 1970s TV sitcom about a black junk dealer, when he was in the office.

The lawsuit also claimed McDowell’s co-workers prepared a fake memorandum with the chief’s knowledge, instructing officers to use phony words when calling the communications center. McDowell says he used the memo during a traffic stop and was then mocked and ridiculed by peers.

“If someone would have come to me,” Barr said, “it would have been stopped immediately.”

“That stuff went out with Jim Crow,” the mayor said, referring to the laws that once mandated segregation. “There’s no place in this society for those kinds of remarks.”
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