The city of High Point’s former human relations director, who was fired after facilitating a public dialogue about police-community relations, is suing the city in federal court for violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The Greensboro Local Office of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a right-to-sue letter in April to Al Heggins, the former human relations director who is African American, in response to her complaint of racial discrimination, hostile work environment and unjustified adverse employment action. The letter letter is required for a complainant to proceed with a lawsuit. Under federal law, a complainant has 90 days from the time the letter is issued to file suit.
The lawsuit alleges that Mayor Pro Tem Jim Davis complained to City Manager Greg Demko and Deputy City Manager Randy McCaslin about the use of the phrase “dismantling white supremacy” at a March 2015 community forum hosted by the human relations department headlined “Black and Blue: A Conversation Between the African-American Community and the High Point Police Department.” The event featured a presentation by Barbara Walker, a professor at Guilford College, entitled “Police Accountability & Citizen Oversight: A Framework for Dismantling White Supremacy and Establishing Real Justice in the 21st Century.”
An associate academic dean in the African American Studies and Justice and Policy Studies departments at Guilford College, Lawrence holds a law degree from Indiana University and a bachelor of science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
A blurb describing Lawrence’s presentation on a flier for the event states, “Some citizens regard current police actions to be necessary and consistent with safety and security while others see them as rooted in white supremacy, aggressive and unaccountable. Many implemented strategies have not changed the contextual nature of white supremacy in police culture, diminished the excessive use of force or quelled citizen unrest. New studies suggest that future progress requires two strategy initiatives. First, the police mandate and training must be reconstituted to properly address implicit bias, white privilege and institutional racism as it relates to rules of engagement, use of force (lethality assessment), de-escalation, etc. Second, civilian accountability agencies must be reorganized as viable review panels with enforcement powers. Discussion will include highlights of efforts in the South that are strategically addressing these issues.”
Heggins, who is representing herself in the lawsuit, alleges in her complaint that she was called into a meeting with McCaslin, who is listed as a defendant in the lawsuit along with Demko, and the human resources director and was informed that she would receive a verbal and written warning for “inefficiency in the discharge of my duties.” The lawsuit alleges that the human resources director went on to tell Heggins that the use of the phrase “dismantling white supremacy” was just as offensive as the word “nigger.”
Angela Kirkwood, the city’s human resources director, could not be reached for comment for this story.
The lawsuit goes on to allege that McCaslin issued a reprimand to Heggins and the city’s public information officer was given authority to approve or disapprove all of her correspondence, prompting her to file an EEOC complaint against the city.
“As a result of the filing the EEOC complaint, the defendants wasted no time initiating a full-scale retaliation campaign that included, but has not been limited to increased hostility, unjustified negative references, increased and unnecessary surveillance, demotion, unjustified suspensions, constructive discharge and finally wrongful termination,” the lawsuit contends.
City Attorney Joanne Carlyle said she is confident the city will be vindicated.
“I’m sure the outcome will show that the city’s policy and procedures are legally sound,” Carlyle said. “The city hasn’t subjected Ms. Heggins to discriminatory treatment. There was no wrongful termination.”
Carlyle disputed the notion that Heggins’ employment difficulties arose from the furor surrounding the phrase “dismantling white supremacy.”
“That’s her wording,” she said. “That’s not something we would agree to.”
Davis could not be reached for comment about his alleged role in raising complaints about Heggins, but at-large Councilman Latimer Alexander told Triad City Beat after Heggins’ firing last year: “There was a flier that went out referencing ‘white supremacy’ and a lot of other things that were very troubling to many in the community. It was the language that folks did not appreciate. There are many things in the modern language that folks said, ‘Gee, that’s an inappropriate thing to say.’”
A redacted copy of McCaslin’s letter of termination to Heggins does not mention any specific acts, but rather cites “poor judgment, negligence and/or incompetence” in her professional performance duties “and discourteous treatment of others.”
McCaslin told Triad City Beat today that the federal lawsuit “is just another one of her frivolous legal actions against the city.”
Heggins’ lawsuit seeks an injunction to enjoin the city “from racial harassment or any other employment practice that discriminates on the basis of race,” an order to the city to institute policies and practices to eradicate past “unlawful employment practices,” and compensation for past and future financial losses, along with “emotional pain, suffering, inconvenience, loss of enjoyment of life, humiliation and loss of civil rights.”
Reached by phone today, Heggins declined to comment except to say, “I just think it’s ironic that I was fired for trying to bring together a conversation [and] now there’s a call for it nationally.”