University of Washington Police. (305961)
University of Washington Police. Credit: University of Washington Police

Earlier this year, as Officer Russell Ellis neared the end of his late shift at the University of Washington’s campus police department, one of his superiors offered him an energy drink. The sergeant was laughing, Ellis said, noting that the beverage was flavored like watermelon, reports the New York Times.

“I thought all you guys like watermelon and Popeyes chicken,” the senior officer said, according to Ellis, who is Black. A second Black officer described a nearly identical encounter with the same sergeant two years earlier.

Ellis, 49, said the exchange left him stewing privately with anger and humiliation. But he said it was far from the first time he had faced racial disparagement or discrimination during his years at the university, a sprawling lakeside campus in Seattle that touts diversity goals to the public, shares anti-racism resources with the student body and shapes the ideals of one of the nation’s most progressive — and one of the Whitest — big cities.

All five Black rank-and-file officers in the university police department filed multi-million-dollar damage claims this week, describing a culture of entrenched racism that has included racial slurs, vicious comments about Black people and open hostility directed at them and at members of the public.

Dozens of incidents, ranging over the past several years through last month, are detailed in the filings. Officer Karinn Young said she sometimes found bananas placed in front of her locker, once with a note that referred to her as a “monkey” and said, “Here’s your lunch.” Officer Hamani Nowlen reported that a White supervisor hit him with a long, stick-like object and remarked, “You people should be used to being hit with these.” Officer Damien Taylor said he overheard White officers talking about the case of George Floyd, who was killed by a White police officer in Minneapolis last year, saying, “His Black ass got what he deserved.”

After a Black officer was placed on leave for an internal investigation, Officer Gabriel Golden reported, he heard three White colleagues talking, with one referring to the officer in question with a racial slur, and saying that he “better not show his face around here.”

In a series of legal notices filed with the state, which are required ahead of a potential lawsuit, the five Black officers did not name the specific individuals who made the comments. The officers seek $8 million in damages for workplace conduct that they said has made their jobs “unbearable.” They said that supervisors in the department were well aware of the conduct, and some of them engaged in it themselves.

“I can’t sleep sometimes,” Ellis said in an interview. “This has affected me in ways that I couldn’t have imagined.”

In Seattle, the descriptions of overt racism inside the campus police department stand out in a city that proudly touts its efforts to combat racism, and where Black Lives Matter signs can be seen in yards and windows all over town. Yet only 7 percent of Seattle residents are Black, one of the smallest concentrations among large U.S. cities. On the University of Washington’s campus in Seattle, the numbers are even smaller, with Black students comprising about 3 percent of the student body.

University officials said on Tuesday that they were “stunned” by the allegations outlined in the legal claims, and said administrators had not previously been made aware of them. “Any one of the incidents described here would prompt an immediate investigation and appropriate disciplinary action based on the investigation’s findings,” Victor Balta, a university spokesman, said in a statement.