EXCLUSIVE: Interviews with Brookline police officers and Police Chief on racial discrimination investigations
Q & A with police officers Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun and Police Chief Daniel O'Leary. The following interviews have been condensed and edited for grammar and clarity.
January 22, 2016
Officers Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun:
The interviews with Brookline Police Officers Estifanos Zerai-Misgun and Prentice Pilot were conducted on Jan. 11 and Jan. 13, respectively, as a follow-up to the town hall meeting on Jan. 5 and to answer questions about racial discrimination in the police force and in Brookline.
What happened in December 2014?
Zerai-Misgun: We went up to (Police Chief Daniel O’Leary) last year and we told him that we were experiencing all these racial incidents. He didn’t start a formal investigation, but he went to all his commanding staff and advisers about it. He told them to let the patrolmen know that this shouldn’t happen, and that (the department) won’t tolerate any racial discrimination.
One of the sergeants went and told all of the patrolmen that I was the one who made the complaint. He breached my confidentiality. Shortly after talking to the chief, there was no solution. I was outed and ostracized after that.
Do you trust the Brookline Police Department to handle the investigation?
Zerai-Misgun: The town says they’re hiring a private investigator outside of the Police Department. There hasn’t been (a private investigator), and they keep trying to have other police officers investigate it, but we don’t trust them anymore. There are more relations in (the Brookline Police Department) than I have ever seen, whether it’s related by blood, being friends or neighbors. There are lots of connections that are kind of conflicts of interest, especially with the actual parties who said comments to us.
What has happened between December 2014, when you initially reported racism within the department, until today?
Pilot: If you’re really serious about changing the department and this town, get to it. I don’t understand this methodology at all. I said at (a meeting on Jan. 5) that I’m not at all convinced about the ability of this town or police department to hold an investigation and figure things out. What they do is they hold investigations, they have meetings and meetings, they convene and convene, hire a study. And then what happens throughout all that time is that time elapses, it becomes no longer a contemporaneous issue, and then you move into issues like we’ve seen with so many other things that happened is this town.
You can talk to a million minority people who live in this town, work in this town, or drive through this town and figure out that, why is it that so often their complaints are either disappeared or are unsustained or there’s just no findings? I think this is a very dangerous thing when you have a police department investigating itself.
Some people say that Brookline is a really safe, racially aware and diverse place. To what extent do you agree with this statement?
Zerai-Misgun: I lived in Charlestown, a mostly Irish town, when I was younger. There were a lot of race problems in Boston years ago.
Living in Brookline, though, that’s the most racism I’ve ever experienced. It’s a different kind of racism. It’s more of a discreet racism. It’s not socially acceptable to be racist, but I think it slips through the cracks every now and then. You can’t say you’re a liberal, progressive town with no racism when (cases of racial discrimination) keep coming up.
(These cases) keep coming up at the high school, the fire department, the water department and the police department. These aren’t just isolated incidents. All these issues that are covered up show what the racial climate of Brookline is really like.
Pilot: The fact of the matter is that Brookline is a very racially diverse community, but the treatment of certain minority classes in this town is unacceptable. This is not a situation about just Officer Zerai and me. Person after person got up and told their stories with regards to the situation (at the town hall meeting on Jan. 5).
What is your opinion of racial diversity training as a solution to preventing future cases of racial discrimination?
Zerai-Misgun: Diversity training, most of the time, is window dressing for liability purposes for the town to say, ‘Hey, we did this and that.’ They have tried this diversity training before and these (racial) issues are still coming up, so it’s obviously not working. It might be time to try something new. I’m not saying eliminate it, because I’m sure it does have some purpose. Maybe the department should still do trainings but not just focus on that to solve the problem.
Pilot: (At the meeting on Jan. 5), there was a guy who talked about how, years ago, someone came to the police department and did racial diversity training, and at the end of it he saw a lot of officers get up and just throw the materials away. So, how do you breach that chasm? I don’t know. I don’t know what training is going to be effective to help people.
Listen, let me just put this on the record. In no way, shape or form am I saying that every police officer in the Brookline police department is racist. That would be a ludicrous statement to make. But unfortunately, I believe that there are enough that are (racist) in that department to make it a very serious hazard to the civil liberty of the civilian population, you know, officers in town.
Racial diversity training,while I think it’s something that is a good thing to do, I think to put stock in racial diversity training, changing the attitude and how people function on the street, I think that’s a fantasy. I think the way officers act and respond on the street is the way they live their life.
What have you learned? Have you learned that people are equal under the law? Or have you learned that some people should be subjected to certain rules and different treatment because of the color of their skin?
Do you think the town hall meeting on Jan. 5 achieved its purpose?
Zerai-Misgun: I think (the Selectmen) only let us speak because they felt pressured by the previous meeting and by the media. I still don’t think they’re taking what we’re saying with much weight. But, it was good for people to go back and share their experiences with the public and the media. It was good for people to actually listen to them for a chance.
Pilot: This issue is not just about Officer Zerai and I. This is about the entire town, all of us. (…) I’m looking for equity, or equality for people, because that’s what I want.
I appreciate, and it’s very heartfelt, all of the comments that people have made for me with regard to the impact I have had. I really appreciate it it, and, not but, and I want people to be out there as they’re doing, fighting for everyone’s rights of equality. That’s it. It’s really quite simple, and the reason why I’m not back at work is the person who made these comments to me has six relatives on the job and dozens of friends. To me, it’s pretty clear where the allegiance and alliances in this situation are.
What do you think needs to change in the future to prevent more instances like this?
Zerai-Misgun: I think there needs to be a long conversation that acknowledges this. I think nobody wants to acknowledge that there’s a problem, so we never get to figure out a solution. Rather than investigating what the problem is, right now, (O’Leary) is investigating Officer Pilot and I, which doesn’t make any sense.
Pilot: I want the town to start functioning as a place that actually is a liberal town. That’s what I want. At this point, I think there are a plethora of citizens, because we’ve seen them. We saw them come out Tuesday night, who said, “Listen, we won’t stand for this. We will not stand for this.”
The question I always give to students, in 6th, 7th, 8th grade and while talking to high school students is: What does it mean to be a decent person? I’m looking for people to treat other people with humanity. That’s it. And that can be a tall order.
Even in the lack of communication with myself and Officer Zerai with regards to whatever investigation the town and police department are doing is in my opinion a lack of humanity. The fact that we never heard from the Human Resources Director since December 2014, that to me appears to be a lack of humanity. Why didn’t she ever contact us? That stunned my brain to no end.
You are a Brookline High School alumnus. What would you like students at the high school to know?
Zerai-Misgun: I would like them to know that the world is a complicated place, and once you enter the world after high school and college, there’s going to be serious issues out there. You have to stand firm, be strong to your morals and stick up for yourselves. Things aren’t going to be easy, but it’s still better knowing that you did everything you could.
Do you have anything else to add?
Pilot: Just the other day I was walking my daughter to school with my fiancé and dog, and someone who I have always had cordial conversations with, who I actually got on the SRT team (Special Response Team) with, this particular officer stops the traffic for us to cross the street. He turned his back on me. He didn’t say a word to me. That’s the kind of stuff I’m talking about in terms of I feel alone. If I ever can get back to the job, I don’t feel I will have the support of fellow officers and remember, they’re not plumbers, they are policemen. It’s not a good thing.
Police Chief Daniel O’Leary:
This interview was conducted on Jan. 21 with Brookline Police Chief Daniel O’Leary as a response to the interviews conducted with Officers Prentice Pilot and Estifanos Zerai-Misgun, and to answer questions about racial discrimination in the police force and in Brookline.
So going back to 2014 when Officer Pilot, Officer Zerai-Misgun and another officer brought it up with you, you said there would be no tolerance for racial discrimination, but confidentiality was breached and Officer Zerai-Misgun was ostracized. Is that true?
He never told me he was ostracized. I told him, and I told the officers who were in the room that there was no way that this (complaint) would remain confidential. I spoke and I told them I would speak at the Command Staff meeting, with almost all of our supervisors, which is a number right around 32. I was going to tell them what was taking place, and I told them who the officers were. I told them and they knew who the officers were. They knew Estifanos had brought that forth. I never promised him that it would stay confidential. As a matter of fact, I told him that it would not be staying confidential. I did say that there was a possibility people knew they were meeting right then in my office. We have one building with 136 police officers and, including civilians, about 180 people. It is very difficult to keep secrets.
The officers said that they didn’t feel safe coming back to work and that’s partially because there are many family relations within the Brookline Police Department, and they don’t feel safe because of that. What do you think?
I get asked this question a lot because some people are related to other people on the job here. You take a look at any profession: take a look at doctors, take a look at teachers, at sports people, plumbers or attorneys. You will see that within a lot of those families, you have kids who emulate their parents and take on the same type of jobs or maybe even the same jobs as their parents. Now, why is it bad in policing, but not bad in these other professions? That’s not the right way to think. I think that parents should be proud of their child who wants to follow in their footsteps. Obviously they send a good tone for their children by saying, ‘This is what I do for my profession. I’m proud of my profession and the work that I do.’ It’s a good thing to see somebody following in their footsteps.
As of right now, what is the investigation being held?
Right now, there are two types of follow-ups being done from people outside of the town and outside the police department. There’s an investigation into the allegation made by Officer Pilot. There’s a subsequent investigation made by the complaints that Officer Estifanos Zerai-Misgun said back in December of 2014. That’s being handled by the same individual. There’s a separate (investigation) being done by a consultant at the police department, who was hired to interview all of the officers of color and women in our department, as well as a group of about eight to 10 White male officers. This is to see what the feeling is amongst the officers, regarding the culture and how we treat people within this department. That’s currently underway. Both of those investigations are currently underway.
One thing the officers were confused about was that they themselves are being investigated. They thought that didn’t make sense. What’s your response to that?
I don’t know about them being investigated. They are being asked to cooperate with the investigation. They are being asked to tell their story. The investigator has to look into it.
Is it true that minority complaints sometimes disappear or are unsustained?
We have a system complaint policy that has about six options that we can choose. It can either sustain the complaint or find it to be not credible. We can determine whether we think the complaint is valid or not. It can be mediated, when people go into a room and talk about things and work it out. It can be unfounded, in which the action that took place was legal and there’s nothing wrong with it. Or, it can be filed. That means the person didn’t follow through with the investigation. The officers’ complaints can be classified into any one of those classifications.
There are claims that these racial discrimination reports come up in a lot of places, such as the high school, the fire department and the police department and they’re not just isolated incidents. What do you think?
I think it’s absolutely true. I think it’s not unique to Brookline, either. I think all you have to do is take a look at what’s happening across the country now and what’s been happening across the country for years, with racism as the topic. These incidents keep cropping up, and it’s all across the country. We are not unique. We’re not separate from the rest of the country. We’re all affected by it. It’s become such an issue in Brookline. A lot of people think that we’re past it, when in reality we are part of this American society, and this is something that we have to deal with. We should be dealing with it and doing a better job with it.
At the Town Hall meeting (on Jan. 5,) people talked about racial diversity training. The officers said they either didn’t remember it or they thought it was ineffective. They also said diversity training seemed to be a window dressing for liability purposes for the town to say that they did something. What do you think?
We have been doing training for a while, especially Officer Pilot, who has been here for longer than Officer Zerai-Misgun. I had them here back in December 2014 when Officers Zerai-Misgun and Pilot filed their complaints. They actually proposed to me and asked me if I would consider putting on diversity training specific to the Brookline Police Department. That was their suggestion. I readily agreed with that. I wanted them to be involved in the development of the curriculum that we give to our officers. We spent time here talking about how to design the curriculum. Officer Pilot then said that he knew people that would help design the curriculum and he was going to run with it.
Is there anything you would like students to know about this situation?
I would hope that the students would keep an open mind about it. Like I said, don’t make a judgement, and they should keep an open mind and take a look at things. I know that it’s easier said than done, but we all have the best interests of people at heart and the best interests of the community at heart.
Do you have anything else to add?
I think people should sit back and really think about the fact that there’s two sides to every story. I think that people have to agree and continue to talk to each other in order to work things out. I think isolating yourself and not engaging in conversation is not going to do anybody any good. That’s my opinion on the whole thing. I do want to say that we took these complaints very seriously. We started the investigations into (the complaints) right away, and, at least with Prentice (Pilot), we started the same day. We handled the complaints of Estifanos (Zerai-Misgun) a little differently, based on what I thought was the desire of the officer involved. We handled it in a way where we agreed on the steps that I was going to take in that room before we left that day. Both times the people who left my office knew what was going to take place and I followed through.