Black and Blue 

Gresham's Only African American Cop Alleges Discrimination

THE ONLY AFRICAN AMERICAN police officer in the history of Gresham's police department has resigned her post in the training division, making serious allegations about racial and sexual discrimination by her colleagues.

"When I took this job I was prepared and expected to have to deal with people calling me a 'nigger' and saying that they hated black people," wrote Officer Sonata Kerbs in a memorandum on July 15, explaining her resignation as a defensive tactics instructor to Sergeant Chris Wheeler.

"What I was not prepared for—and did not expect—was to have to deal with one of my coworkers using the word 'nigger' to describe black people and expressing his hate for black people," Kerbs continued. "I should not have to or be expected to work so closely with a fellow officer who has these views and feelings about my race."

The Mercury obtained a copy of the memo from an unnamed source last week. Kerbs has since been unavailable for further comment on the document.

Kerbs made the allegations about fellow Officer Jason Justus, saying that having to work with a colleague who holds such views "threatens to make my job a hostile work environment." It's not clear from the memo whether Justus made the alleged remarks on the job or at social gatherings with fellow officers, but Kerbs alleges that Sergeant Wheeler had been informed about Justus' use of the word on a "specific day, month, and year" by a fellow officer, and that Wheeler "declined the information," failing to mention it in an investigative memo about Justus' alleged conduct.

Both Justus and Wheeler were also unavailable for comment.

Kerbs' memo also alleges that she was kept out of the loop in the training department, missed shifts when schedules were changed without being given notice, missed meetings when locations were changed without being given notice, was denied overtime opportunities routinely given to her male colleagues, and denied "the same opportunities as my colleagues for learning and instructing."

As the crow flies, there are just 14.4 miles between the city halls of Portland and Gresham. Here in Portland, Police Chief Rosie Sizer announced new goals for hiring more minority officers when she presented her plan to address racial profiling to city council on September 2.

"We want the bureau to try to reflect the city and also make the community feel more like when somebody comes to their door that they speak the same language or can relate to them," explains Portland's Public Information Officer Mary Wheat.

In September, Police Commissioner Dan Saltzman praised Sizer publicly for "taking this issue on." "It would be easy not to take it on," he said. Meanwhile, Gresham instituted a 12-page equal opportunity employment plan in September following the award of $1.5 million in federal stimulus dollars to hire six new police officers.

"We'd be the first ones to admit that we do have a disparity in our hiring diversity," says Gresham Communications Manager Laura Bridges-Shepard. "But we have a plan to focus on the problem."

"The Gresham Police Department is committed to hiring qualified minority and female candidates," reads the equal opportunity plan. "And to provide every applicant equal opportunity employment access to help increase diversity within its workforce that reflects the community it serves."

Gresham voters rejected a $31.8 million property tax levy last November, to pay for more cops—the department has just 120 officers, compared to Portland's 900. The department is struggling to keep up with Gresham's annual population growth at around two percent, which is becoming increasingly ethnically diverse.

"A lot of poor African Americans have moved from North and Northeast Portland to places like Gresham and East Portland because of lower housing costs," explains Midge Purcell with the Urban League of Portland. "A city like Gresham should be looking at its workforce to ensure that it reflects that diversity, and if there are issues with cultural competency, regardless of this particular case, then they need to address them."

Through their spokespeople, Gresham City Manager Erik Kvarsten and Mayor Shane Bemis both referred the Mercury to Gresham Police Chief Craig Junginger for comment.

"Not only the police department but also the city take very seriously any allegation against them concerning discrimination or harassment," says Chief Junginger. "We have initiated an internal investigation which has been ongoing for a period of time. Due to it being a personnel investigation, I can't comment further."

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