Stow’s only black officer sues city, chief for discrimination
STOW -- The only African-American police officer in Stow is suing the city and its police chief, claiming he has been discriminated against and passed over for promotions.
Officer Barry Smith alleges he was harassed for violating the department’s facial hair policy by at times failing to be clean-shaven, though he had a doctor’s excuse for a skin condition. He also says white officers were promoted over him.
Kevin Gross, Smith’s Beachwood attorney, said his client is seeking compensation for the salary and retirement benefits he would have received if he hadn’t been discriminated against. He said Smith also wants to prevent the same treatment of future black officers.
“It’s not just about few more dollars in his bank account,” Gross said Wednesday. “It’s deeper than that.”
R. Scot Harvey, the Akron attorney representing Stow, though, claims Smith’s allegations are false.
“Officer Smith’s lawsuit is fueled by a misguided sense of entitlement manifested by his apparent belief he should be handed undeserved promotions despite repeatedly performing poorly on Civil Service Commission promotional exams as compared to other officers,” Harvey said in a recent document filed in Summit County Common Pleas Court.
Smith, who has been with the department since 1996, filed the lawsuit against Stow and Chief Jeff Film in February and recently submitted an amended complaint. The case, assigned to Judge Susan Baker Ross, is set for trial in November 2021.
Smith works as a resource officer in Stow-Munroe Falls High School. He returned to work in early March after recovering from injuries he suffered when he was struck by a car in October while directing traffic at a crash. The Stow Police Department’s uniform policy requires officers to be clean-shaven.
Smith, according to the lawsuit, has pseudofolliculitis barbae (PFB), an irritation caused by shaving that afflicts many African-American men. He gave the department a note from a dermatologist in October 2011 that said he must wear a well-trimmed, neat beard.
Smith said he continued to be questioned by supervisors about his grooming and filed a complaint in 2014 with the service director. He pointed out that a white officer had visible tattoos – also a violation of the department’s uniform policy – but wasn’t being singled out.
Both the service director and mayor found that Smith wasn’t being harassed by being questioned about his facial hair.
In April 2014, Smith took a sergeant’s exam and scored in the top three. The two white officers were promoted. Smith asked for a time extension of the promotional list from the Civil Service Commission, which the commission granted for six months.
Smith said the department chose not to fill a detective sergeant position – pointing to budget constraints – but he thinks this was done to avoid promoting him. He wasn’t promoted before his list expired.
Smith is seeking back wages and benefits, compensatory and punitive damages of more than $25,000 and attorney’s fees.
Both Film and Harvey declined Wednesday to discuss the lawsuit.
In response to Smith’s claims, the police department said Smith has never been disciplined, besides a single verbal counseling. The city said Smith performed poorly on promotional exams in 2003, 2008 and 2011 and incorrectly assumed his supervisors were “out to get him.”
The department said Smith was questioned about his facial hair because he wasn’t complying with his dermatologist’s order that he keep a well-trimmed beard. The department said supervisors and Smith agreed on a shaving schedule and the issue hasn’t been raised again.
The department said the white officers who were promoted over Smith scored better on the test and the detective sergeant position wasn’t filled because of budget constraints. A lieutenant temporarily assumed this sergeant’s duties.
The department said it gets few African-American applicants. Stow is 92 percent white, according to the U.S. Census.
Smith’s “attempt to create the impression the city has excluded African-Americans from its police force has absolutely no evidence to support it and is a completely false narrative,” the department said in a court document.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, 330-996-3705 and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.