Times Watchdog stories dig deep to hold power accountable, right wrongs and create change. This work is made possible by The Seattle Times Investigative Journalism Fund. Donate today to support watchdog journalism in our community.

TACOMA — Valencia Brooks sat in the back row of the 1 p.m. shift-change meeting at the Tacoma Police Department. Among the usual announcements about wanted suspects to look out for, she heard this: “You can probably find him with one of his hoes.”

Silence gripped the room. Brooks’ supervisor, seated beside her, glanced to see Brooks — the only Black woman in the room — with a blank reaction.

Inside, she was seething. But over the course of 30 years at the Tacoma Police Department, she’d become practiced at swallowing her rage in the face of what she saw as racism: this time, a white sergeant using a slang pejorative for prostitutes to refer to Black women who were accused of simply knowing a Black suspect.

“If I would have reacted, then I would have reaffirmed the racist stereotype of African American women that were depicted in the departmental cultural diversity training,” she said.

Brooks filed a complaint with the department’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, one of 18 she lodged against fellow officers for a litany of allegations over two decades, including a hate crime allegedly covered up, training on racist stereotypes that only served to reinforce them, and tolerance for personnel associating with a white supremacist hate group.

Advertising

Virtually all the complaints were rejected. But Brooks believed this one, from the meeting in March 2019, seemed promising.

The sergeant, after all, allegedly used the term in a room full of cops, whose professional standards require them to “give careful attention.” But finding a straight answer proved more difficult than Brooks had expected.

As police departments across the country have been confronted with allegations that their practices widen divides with communities they police, Brooks says she had a front-row seat to what she says is the root of the problem in Tacoma: tolerated discrimination inside the blue line.

Even as Tacoma police leaders pledged their commitment to racial equity, she took careful notes and kept voluminous records of incidents, sometimes providing investigators corroborating witnesses. “It felt like a part-time job,” said Brooks, who retired last year.

Brooks, 55, provided The Seattle Times more than 340 pages detailing her internal complaints and the Tacoma Police Department’s responses to them. A city spokesperson declined to answer questions about Brooks’ complaints, citing the privacy of the accused officers.

Brooks wasn’t alone. Interviews with Black former officers and a Seattle Times review of Tacoma records — including internal complaints, hiring and retention data and surveys of city employees — show a department prioritizing but struggling to hire more Black officers, even as it consistently rejected complaints of racism from the few it had.

Advertising

Tacoma’s second Black police chief, Avery Moore, started the job in February. Moore, currently one of 16 Black officers on a force of 316, inherited an overwhelmingly white Police Department whose historically strained relationship with Tacoma’s Black community was made worse by the police killing of Manuel Ellis, a 33-year-old Black man, in March 2020.

It resulted in extraordinary criminal charges against three of Brooks’ former colleagues. The officers, who have all pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial, remain employed by TPD.

Manuel Ellis

More

Black men in Tacoma are six times more likely than white men to be subjected to police use of force, and they are far more likely to be ticketed, according to an independent study released last year, although the findings are limited by what researchers described as “systemic” gaps in data collection.

Within city government, Black employees and managers said “the dominant culture is to avoid confrontation” and some reported a fear of retaliation, according to a city staff survey last year.

“If you raise concerns, you are the outsider,” Brooks said. “You are the problem.”

Advertising

Nearly all of her complaints against fellow officers were evaluated by then-Capt. Fred Scruggs, head of TPD’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office, where complaints of harassment and discrimination are routed. He was one of the few longtime Black members of the department to climb its ranks.

None of Brooks’ claims was deemed to be “unfounded,” but most “did not rise to the level” of a violation. Each time, the department’s chief backed their rulings.

Scruggs said he gave Brooks’ complaints fair consideration with help from city legal advisers. “My job was making sure every complaint was handled, that it didn’t go away, it was addressed in some kind of manner and [complainants] were notified of the results.”

In evaluating the use of “hoes” at the shift change meeting, Scruggs emailed every officer and supervisor present. Sixteen said they heard no such thing. Even Sgt. John Branham, who was accused of making the remark, later told investigators he couldn’t remember if he had used the term “hoes,” but admitted he “might have,” because he liked to “keep it light” at meetings, according to the EEO report.

One officer, seated in the front row, confirmed it, and took great offense — not to Branham’s alleged comment, but to Brooks’ objections. Officers “need to feel comfortable enough to be ourselves. Having our guard up every hour, even while working, causes strain on the psychology of an officer,” he said.

In the end, three of the 19 people questioned, including Brooks, confirmed the use of the term, their emails with Scruggs showed.

Sponsored

Scruggs ruled that the use of the term “did not rise to the level” of a policy violation, without further explanation.

Brooks said she felt betrayed by her squad’s responses to Scruggs’ questions and doubly so by her department’s acceptance of their answers. Her squadmates became more distant. Her own partner, whom she’d long considered a friend, began avoiding her altogether.

In an email to her supervisor after the ruling, Brooks asked to be reassigned, citing the rejection of her complaint and what she alleged was “untruthfulness” and “racial bias” of some of her colleagues.

“We all know what is at stake when officers are willing to lie, conspire to cover up the truth and have a racial bias,” she wrote.

“Overcome evil with good”

Brooks sat transfixed in the TV glow of 1970s and ‘80s police dramas during her childhood in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It was the quirky gumshoe Columbo, and later the odd couple Cagney and Lacey, that served up justice in her childhood living room. They inspired an epiphany around middle school: Brooks wanted to be like those do-gooder officers on TV.

Advertising

From then on, Brooks reached for that dream: Straight from high school to the military, then, in 1989, Tacoma police officer.

She quickly learned TPD was nothing like TV. She was soon named in a lawsuit along with a large group of officers accused of wrongful arrest. She was ultimately dropped from the suit, but not before watching officers and city attorneys conduct “strategy sessions” in the catacombs of Tacoma’s municipal building so they could match up their stories, she said.

In 1994, she quit TPD and went back to Michigan, working in public safety in Kalamazoo. But a bit bored, and still wanting to make a difference, she returned to the Tacoma police in 1996.

This time, instead of walking away when those hopes faded, Brooks stayed on and deputized herself the department’s unofficial conscience.

After a decade on the force, being mistaken for other Black women by her fellow officers over and over, observing casual racism by officers, Brooks began to file complaints.

Brooks herself was the target of two internal complaints resulting in reprimand — one for filing a complaint against an officer in another department whom she dated, causing her supervisor to doubt her motives; and another for rudeness.

Advertising

In the latter, Brooks helped a Black man move his car’s bumper out of the roadway. The white woman he’d crashed into complained that act amounted to favoritism by Brooks, even though she had ticketed the Black driver.

“Black officers are under a microscope,” Brooks said. “Any sort of misstep, any mistake, is blown up because you stand out so much. If you’re white, you blend in, and so do your mistakes.”

Brooks’ right wrist is tattooed with “Romans 12:21,” a reference to the Bible verse, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

“If I hadn’t wanted to do it since I was a kid, I wouldn’t have lasted nearly as long,” Brooks said. “Even if I couldn’t effect the changes that needed to happen, at least I could be there as a witness to show the concerns of Black people are real. It’s not perceived, it’s real.”

A surprising admission

As she wrapped up her shift around sunrise on Nov. 15, 2000, Brooks’ eardrums were still gently thrumming from her previous shift, providing security for rapper Eminem’s sold-out Tacoma Dome performance.

Brooks was alone in a hospital break room when a fellow Tacoma police officer struck up a chat. They’d never met, but within minutes the officer, Michael Cerniauskas, announced that he had lived with white supremacist skinheads, Brooks stated as part of a later lawsuit. To her, the unsolicited announcement had a clear purpose: intimidation.

Advertising

Cerniauskas, who is white, also brought up his past association with skinheads in separate conversations with two other Black officers over the ensuing days. In his job application, Cerniauskas said that when he was 16, he lived with skinheads for a month, but disassociated with them “after he learned of their full beliefs.”

Tacoma Police Department policy forbids hiring personnel with gang affiliations, and asks whether job candidates have associated with gang members. In his application, obtained by The Seattle Times, Cerniauskas denied associating with gangs, but admitted his association with skinheads.

Cerniauskas had been rejected by the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department and the Washington State Patrol before TPD hired him. A West Point graduate, he was dismissed from the Army under Article 15 for defying an order to not go out drinking, but was honorably discharged and returned as an Army reservist after a decade at TPD.

He was hired in December by the Lakewood Police Department, its chief, Mike Zaro, confirmed. Cerniauskas declined to be interviewed, Zaro said.

Brooks, new to the complaint process at the time, told an assistant chief about her experience with Cerniauskas. But she didn’t submit a written complaint, and her informal complaint was not investigated.

Brooks referred to her conversation with Cerniauskas in a 2005 workplace discrimination lawsuit against the city of Tacoma that a Pierce County judge dismissed.

Advertising

More

Internal forces

The police chief during most of Brooks’ time at TPD was Don Ramsdell, who’d taken over in 2003 in the wake of a scandal. His predecessor, David Brame, used his service weapon to kill his wife and then himself in front of their children in a public parking lot.

After the tragedy, it was revealed that Brame had been committing spousal abuse in the months preceding the tragedy, and that city leaders were aware but kept it a secret, preserving his access to the weapon he used in the murder-suicide.

Ramsdell promised sweeping cultural reforms. He said there would be zero tolerance for “all forms of illegal discrimination, harassment and retaliation” in the workplace, with the expectation that employees act with “respect for the diversity of the department’s workforce and the community it serves.”

He specifically cited “telling jokes, using threatening or offensive words” denigrating a protected group. But Ramsdell upheld each of the decisions to reject Brooks’ complaints, including the use of “hoes.” Ramsdell, who retired in late 2020, did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

More than a decade into Ramsdell’s tenure, TPD had made little to no progress to diversify the force. Department leaders recognized it lagged behind the city’s demographics: During Ramsdell’s tenure, Black officers made up between 4% and 5% of the department, while Black residents made up 11% to 12% of the city’s population.

TPD turned to the U.S. Department of Justice and got a $3.4 million grant in 2014 to improve diversity and help address “not only illegal discrimination/harassment, but also any conduct that is reasonably considered offensive and/or inappropriate.”

Advertising

Prioritizing recruitment and hiring of diverse officers, Tacoma contracted with an ad agency to drum up interest from underrepresented communities.

But after eight years there’s little to show for it. Black representation in the department peaked at 21 in 2017, out of 336, but has since fallen, according to department data.

To Brooks, the solution was clear: Before recruiting more Black officers, TPD had to treat its few Black officers better.

She filed an EEO complaint in 2015 about the ads featuring Black officers while they were still on probation and who were not ultimately hired, a practice championed by Mike Ake, who would serve as interim chief after Ramsdell’s retirement. Brooks alleged it made the department appear more diverse than it was. The complaint was rejected.

Ake, now retired, defended his approach to recruitment. “I do appreciate the officers who volunteered to represent us in hiring and community events,” he said in an email. “If anyone didn’t want to participate, we understood and supported their decision.”

In December 2019, a survey of Tacoma municipal employees of color showed their experience mirrored Brooks’. Black city workers shared concerns about recruitment, hiring, retention and promotion; lack of managerial accountability; “overt and subtle acts of racism”; and a sense of isolation.

Advertising

The Police Department promoted people of color “at a rate substantially lower than what was expected,” according to a city workforce study assessing 2012 to 2019. Over the same span, people of color left the department at a rate 22% higher than white peers, and women left at a clip 75% higher than men.

“A long distance to travel”

Brooks prevailed just once with a complaint, and only in part. It involved a training video meant to dispel racial and ethnic stereotypes, in which a white woman with blond hair bobbed her head, raised her voice and gestured wildly with her hands as she mimicked a stereotype of Black women. This, she said, is what you might expect when you encounter one on a service call.

In another segment, the same trainer offered an unflattering description of the odors officers could encounter in an Indian household, such as curry. One whiff, the trainer said, and “you know what kind of people you’re dealing with.”

Brooks immediately filed an EEO complaint. Scruggs ruled the video, produced by Police One Academy, an outside contractor, “in its entirety did not violate” policies, nor did the segment on Indian households. But the segment depicting Black women “dispersed disparaging, inaccurate and inappropriate information,” he found, and accepted Brooks’ proposed resolution to better screen future training videos.

Brooks today wonders if it was much of a victory at all. She first complained in 2007 about training guidance that she says had ingrained stereotypes about Black men and put officers on an aggressive footing.

An analysis of the department’s use of force, released last year, found that although Black men made up about 6% of Tacoma’s population from January 2015 through mid-September 2020, one-third of the instances of when police used force were against them. The analysis also found that Black men were ticketed at twice the rate of white men, who outnumbered Black men in Tacoma 5-to-1.

Advertising

However, Tacoma police policies don’t require reports on all uses of force, or require all responding officers to give statements. And officers often failed to collect demographic information on drivers and pedestrians, according to consultants’ analyses. In late 2020, the department adopted stronger policies for recording demographic data during officer-initiated stops.

“Ultimately, the [Tacoma Police] Department has a long distance to travel to ensure that force incidents receive a comprehensive, multi-stage, 360-degree review in the manner that many other departments do,” according to the report.

Alleged hate crime dismissed

The principal at Meeker Middle School made a grim discovery just before the winter holiday break in 2018.

A white student had circulated a petition with a drawing resembling one of his classmates, a Muslim girl, hanging from a noose with the words “Take back the Holy land, Muslims must die.” And then the boy had presented the petition to the girl and tried to get her to sign it.

Tacoma Police Department, following state law, has clear policies about investigating hate crimes. Yet the white officer who responded, Anthony Wilkerson, followed none of them, according to Brooks’ EEO complaint.

He didn’t notify a supervisor or designate it as a hate crime investigation in his report — instead classifying it as “informational,” according to her complaint. It also alleged that he didn’t refer to the Muslim girl as a victim or even interview her, although he spoke with the boy but didn’t question him about his motive for the petition.

Advertising

Instead, Wilkerson’s report focused on the boy’s remorse. “He was visibly upset and crying with tears running down his face … He said that he was sorry for the petition and that he was only trying to be funny, but realizes now that it was hurtful.”

“It was clear that Officer Wilkerson was covering up the incident for the suspect because he was a [white male],” Brooks wrote in her complaint.

Wilkerson, who is still a Tacoma officer, did not respond to requests for comment.
Per TPD policy, Scruggs left the investigation of the complaint to Wilkerson’s supervisor, and then ruled that the officer’s actions did not rise to the level of a policy violation. Ramsdell affirmed it.

Black officers struggle

Scruggs, one of four people of color among the department’s 25 command staff before his retirement last month, may have denied most of Brooks’ complaints, but he acknowledged racism at the department.

“It’s difficult being an African American male in America, period,” said Scruggs who’s spent all of his 34-year career in Tacoma, rising to assistant chief. “There are experiences that we deal with in the workplace and our personal lives that are potentially different than any other race or any other gender in America. Tacoma Police Department is no different.”

Scruggs described a delicate balance for Black police officers, navigating a Black community that tends to view them as “sellouts,” while having to work harder than white peers for recognition.

Advertising

“The way I see it, as African Americans in the workplace, we often have to fight and struggle just to be noticed,” Scruggs said. “There’s a lot of ways you can do that. You can do it diplomatically, or more vocally.”

Scruggs said he chose the former; Brooks chose the latter. Scruggs said he holds her in high esteem for her outspokenness, while Brooks said she regards him as a guardian of the status quo whose decisions were detrimental to Black officers.

He believes the key to better experiences for Black officers lies in hiring more of them, and “listening to these officers’ experience and understanding and accepting that things are different for us.”

Brooks worries that if the status quo continues, the department’s few Black officers will share her experience, undermining its diversity goals.

“Hopefully I’ve made it better for the next Black female officer to come after me,” Brooks said. “Or maybe there won’t be any more.”

Through a spokesperson, the city of Tacoma’s Human Resources Director Shelby Fritz declined an interview request and refused to answer questions about the quality of the investigations into Brooks’ complaints, citing the city’s privacy policy.

Advertising

Tacoma does not track or analyze the outcomes of EEO complaints, Fritz said in a written statement, so it couldn’t speak to whether Black officers’ complaints are dismissed more often than their white peers’.

“This could be done manually,” but would be time-consuming and difficult, she said.

Between January 2017 and November 2020, 829 complaints, internal and external, were lodged against Tacoma police employees, most for unsatisfactory performance or discourtesy. Of those, 84 percent were dismissed, according to an analysis commissioned by the city last year. Often, the report found, officers’ supervisors dismissed complaints without giving them complete and independent investigations.

Send us a tip

Tips are the lifeblood of investigative reporting. Good tips are clear, specific, have documents or evidence to back them up and involve a problem with real-world consequences. We accept tips by several methods, including through secure encrypted email, text and phone calls, as well as mail, so a reporter can follow up with you.

“I can’t do this anymore”

When the Tacoma Police Department issued Brooks a new vehicle in February 2020, it included a “Thin Blue Line” sticker on its rear end.

To some cops, it can represent standing in the gap between order and chaos or to memorialize fallen officers. Brooks saw it as a divisive symbol. “For many African-Americans, the flag is a racist symbol,” Brooks wrote in her Feb. 25, 2020, complaint, one week before Ellis’ killing. She asked permission to replace it with the U.S. flag.

It took Scruggs just one day to adjudicate Brooks’ complaint: “We will NOT remove the flag from the car,” he wrote in an email.

But when the medical examiner in June 2020 ruled Ellis’ death in Tacoma police custody a homicide, and public criticism of the decals mounted, Ramsdell ordered the stickers removed from all TPD vehicles. In a written statement at the time, Ramsdell said he was “listening and responding to the community.”

It was Brooks’ last complaint. On Feb. 1 last year, she parked in a fenced lot behind Tacoma police headquarters around 12:45 p.m. and walked inside, carrying her department-issued laptop.

As Brooks made her way to the women’s locker room, she saw Ake, the acting police chief and the target of her unsuccessful complaint about using Black probationary officers in recruiting materials.

Just before she reached the locker room, she ran into Scruggs, and she was reminded of all her complaints he’d rejected.

Inside the locker room, she plopped her laptop down and stopped.

“That’s when it hit me. I said, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” Brooks recalled.

With her laptop still on the bench, and her uniform jumpsuit still dangling at her waist, she walked out and never looked back.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Avery Moore as Tacoma’s first Black police chief.