Duluth cop disputes report refuting sexual harassment claim

In this 2011 file photo, Duluth Police officer Bobby Johnson was awarded the Gold Medal of Valor during a ceremony.

In this 2011 file photo, Duluth Police officer Bobby Johnson was awarded the Gold Medal of Valor during a ceremony.

DULUTH -- The Duluth police officer charging his department with discrimination because he is gay has, according to an independent investigation, a reputation for starting sexual banter at work himself.

Bobby Johnson, an eight-year veteran of the Duluth Police Department recently promoted to detective, filed a complaint in February alleging that Chief Randy Belcher and at least one other colleague had made disparaging comments about his sexual orientation. He also filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, pointing to what he believes is a work environment made hostile because of his homosexuality.

"I'm depressed, sad, hurt, ashamed to think that supervisors of the police department would get a laugh of making fun of someone who was not there to defend there (sic) self, just because I'm gay," Johnson wrote in his original e-mail complaint, obtained alongside more than 800 other pages via an Open Records Act request by the Daily Post.

But an independent investigation, completed May 7 by Atlanta-based firm One Mediation, ultimately deemed Johnson's claims unfounded -- and reported that Johnson was notorious within the department for starting the very kind of conversations he's now taking issue with.

Nevertheless, Johnson is calling foul and pushing onward.

The findings

Both issues referenced in Johnson's accusations stem from the final months of 2012, at least four months prior to the officer's complaints.

In October, Cpl. Tommy Pressley reportedly told Johnson that he, Chief Belcher and several other higher-ups in the department went to lunch at a local hot dog joint. Pressley allegedly said that, while there, Belcher had "seen a picture of a large hot dog on the menu" and made a crack along the lines of "naming a menu" or menu item in honor of Johnson.

The whole table had chuckled at the chief's joke, evidently meant to reference Johnson's homosexuality, Pressley said.

While another member of the department did confirm to investigators that Pressley had shared such a story with Johnson, its roots appear to be more dubious. Pressley denied relaying the tale and that such an incident occurred, as did all other members of that day's lunch party.

"In addition, each of the more than twenty individuals interviewed during the course of the investigation denied ever hearing Chief Belcher make any derogatory or inappropriate comments to or about (Johnson), or anyone else, on the basis of sexual orientation," the investigator wrote in her report.

The initial claim, the investigator wrote, "is not supported by the credible evidence."

Johnson also claimed that, in October and November of last year, Lt. Chuck Wilson made several inappropriate comments aimed at his homosexuality. According to the investigation, Wilson didn't deny most of those workplace conversations happened -- but provided different wording and context than Johnson's complaint offered.

He said that Johnson was "frequently an active participant or an originator of conversations and jokes of a sexual nature," a statement backed up by several other members of the Duluth Police Department.

-- "One interviewee commented that (Johnson) 'talks about sex a lot' and said that '90% of the time if sex comes up in a conversation and (Johnson) is around, he probably started it.'"

-- "Another interviewee expressed that he has heard (Johnson) make numerous inappropriate sexual comments and has heard him initiate conversations about sex 'hundreds of times.'"

-- "Still another interviewee, who described himself as a friend of (Johnson), commented about (Johnson) that 'you can't instigate (sexual banter) 65 -- 70% of the time and then be upset when someone says the same thing to you. It's not right.'"

The investigator did not find cause to believe any harassment had occurred. Both Wilson and Johnson were reprimanded for engaging in "inappropriate sexual banter with other officers during work hours."

The counter

It was a witch hunt -- that's what Johnson said Thursday when asked about what he's calling a not-so-independent probe.

"(Duluth city manager Tim Shearer) hired the individual, the city paid the individual, so what other outcome was he expecting?" he asked.

Johnson, who came out to his coworkers at a Christmas party a year or two into his tenure at DPD, called the investigator's inability to corroborate his complaints "unfair and biased."

He laughed at the depiction of himself as constantly talking about sex, admitting that "sometimes things may be said in a small group of your friends" but arguing that wasn't the case in the incidents alleged in his complaints.

"I never had a rapport with Lt. Wilson for him to talk to me that way," he said. "I never had a rapport with Chief Belcher for him to talk to me that way."

On June 10, the Duluth City Council authorized a settlement offering to Johnson for just under $21,000, verbally agreed to by the latter under the guidelines that he would leave the department and dismiss any pending (or future) complaints.

Last week he rejected that offer and parted ways with his attorney. Johnson said after attorney's fees and taxes the payout would've been in the neighborhood of $7,000.

"I would be losing my job, I would be losing my salary, I would be losing my health benefits, I would be losing everything," he said. "I was not willing to walk away from my career and my profession and the job that I love dearly for $7,000."

He said he wants those who hurt him to be held accountable for their actions.

The aftermath

On Monday, Johnson reported back to work after being on paid administrative leave since his original complaint was filed in February.

"Now that the investigation has been concluded and Mr. Johnson has apparently changed his mind about the settlement," Duluth City Attorney Stephen Pereira said, "there was no reason not to return Mr. Johnson to work and he was taken off administrative leave and directed to report to work (Monday) morning."

Previously an officer in the community oriented police services (COPS) division, Johnson said he's now a detective in the criminal investigation division. He called the timing "strange," but Pereira said the city doesn't consider the move a promotion.

"The city agreed to transfer Mr. Johnson back to CID long before he raised his current complaints," he said. A small raise for Johnson was the result of a need for CID officers to be on-call 24 hours a day, he said.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's investigation into Johnson's complaint is yet to be launched. Johnson said a representative contacted him this week regarding an upcoming interview.

Citing "anticipated litigation," the city declined further comment.

Meanwhile, Johnson seems to be enjoying his new assignment -- to a degree.

"Members of the CID have been very warm, receptive, respectful, courteous, polite," Johnson said Thursday. "I can't say a bad word about any of them."

But, he added: "Those are the only people at the police department that have spoken to me."

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