A former dispatcher with the Memorial Villages Police Department paints a discriminatory and dysfunctional portrait of the law enforcement division for the wealthy Houston suburb, according to an affidavit filed in Harris County civil court.
Among the claims from L. Kelly, an African-American woman who worked as a dispatcher for Memorial Villages from 2010 to 2016, is the frequent use of derogatory language toward minorities by officers, that she was shown an online video of a white woman calling then-President Barrack Obama the “n-word” and that she was asked to alter arrest data to conceal racial profiling.
There are also less serious allegations such as officers spending time in the dispatch room to watch television and play video poker and midnight parties where officers ate cake and watched the “Cops” parody show, “Reno 911.”
All these assertions appear in a 2017 affidavit Kelly submitted as part of a termination lawsuit filed by former Memorial Villages officer Greg DeFrancesco. Kelly also logged the allegations in a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that enforces and administers civil rights lawsuits against workplace discrimination.
Ray Viada, who represented Memorial Villages in the civil lawsuit by DeFrancesco that was dismissed by a Harris County judge in early July, said Kelly is a former employee who left the department in good standing, but that she does not have any strong evidence to support her claims.
“What we’re left with is a ‘he-said-she-said’ situation,” he said. “It’s very easy after the fact to throw around allegations that people are using racially hostile language, but it’s difficult to disprove it.”
Viada said that Memorial Villages has not been contacted by the EEOC about any complaints and said Kelly never filed any official complaints to her supervisors while at the department. Kelly learned recently, though, that the EEOC mistakenly dismissed her original petition because of a computer error and that her case is being reviewed. If the commission deems the complaint worthy, it might then reach out to Memorial Villages as part of an inquiry.
For Kelly, remaining silent about unseemly behavior matches her personality. She says she often chose to “pick her battles” at Memorial Villages for fear of losing job credibility in the future.
“Every time I heard wetback or [the n-word] or whatever, [if] every time I wrote a statement, that would be in my file,” Kelly said in an interview with the Houston Press. She worried a future employer might see those complaints and think of her negatively. “I would’ve been stuck at Memorial Villages.”
Kelly finally submitted a written statement to her supervisor in November 2012 after an officer asked her to watch a video on YouTube of a white woman calling Obama the “n-word” and hoping he would be assassinated. In her affidavit, Kelly claimed the two officers laughed before she asked them to leave. She later broke down in tears to another dispatcher and wrote a formal statement about the incident.
Viada said the department investigated the episode and the dispatch supervisor at the time, Lieutenant Gerald Sorrell, recommended formal discipline against the men. Instead, the chief at the time, Haril Walpole, ordered the two officers stay out of the dispatcher’s room. Kelly, in her affidavit, said no one told her anything about the investigation. She found out two years later while looking into her employee personnel file.
DeFrancesco says he found Kelly distressed after she watched the YouTube video and his legal team brought her into his civil suit to support their contention that the police department was a racially hostile work environment. Part of DeFrancesco’s argument is that the department targeted him because he complained of racial discrimination against Kelly and himself. DeFrancesco’s maternal mother’s mother came from Spain and he identified as Hispanic at Memorial Villages. Previously, though, DeFrancesco listed himself as white with the Houston Police Department until 1993 when he learned of a statistical bonus given to Hispanic and African-American officers on the sergeant's test.
DeFrancesco’s legal battle against Memorial Villages has lasted longer than his time at the office. After a 20-plus year career with HPD, Memorial Villages hired him in 2012. His tenure got off to a rocky start as he clashed with other officers over what he considered belittling behavior toward him. The department fired him in November 2013 after DeFrancesco left his assigned area to retrieve his police radio from his home without telling his supervisor.
DeFrancesco’s lawyer, Scott Poerschke, filed a motion for a new trial in August. DeFrancesco says more than anything he wants Memorial Villages to change paperwork that labeled his dismissal as a “dishonorable discharge.” That label, he says, has prevented him from finding new work in law enforcement.
DeFrancesco echoed Kelly’s claims about officers lounging in the dispatcher’s office. In court documents, J.D. Sanders, the Memorial Villages Chief when DeFrancesco was fired, wrote that it was permitted behavior for officers in the dispatch to watch television to pass the time during night shifts. Patrol officers remained in the room to give dispatchers a break if needed. Sanders retired in April.
Sanders does not address the "Reno 911" parties in court documents. Kelly said she witnessed the gatherings often in January of 2013. She said all officers assembled in the station to watch the show with none patrolling the streets.
That summer, Kelly was not included on an email for a promotion that eventually went to a white colleague, despite Kelly’s better academic background, she said. Kelly eventually resigned in the beginning of 2016, after she says an officer asked her to change profiling information from arrests the previous year, according to the affidavit. At the time, Memorial Villages was changing to a new computer system and needed to update 2015 tickets as part of the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports. Kelly said she and another dispatcher were handed 500 tickets that did not report racial data – Hispanic or non-Hispanic – and asked to fill in non-Hispanic. Kelly refused and resigned soon after. Viada called her claims about changing the data “positively untrue.”
After Memorial Villages, Kelly worked for about a year with HPD and left law enforcement after moving to Dallas this Spring. She’s found temporary work with Amazon as one of the company’s online investigators, who track things like fraudulent activity and bad sales on the website. Her passion, though, has always been law enforcement and she hopes to return to the field.
“I just hope that they do the right thing, that was my only intent and motive,” Kelly said about the EEOC complaint. “I don’t want anyone else to go through what I went through there.”