Transition in sheriff’s office highlights discrimination claims

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Catherine Netter speaks with Clerk to the Board Robin Keller prior to being administered the code of ethical conduct to serve as part of Sheriff Danny Rogers' leadership team. (photo by Jordan Green)

A member of Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers’ leadership team was fired by his predecessor, BJ Barnes, after she complained about facing discrimination as an African American and a Muslim.

Shortly after taking the oath of office in High Point on Monday, Guilford County Sheriff Danny Rogers administered an ethics code of conduct to Catherine Netter, his new executive administrative officer.

“I promise to report either in writing or by word of mouth to the proper authorities those things which should be reported,” Netter affirmed, “and to keep silent about matters which are to remain confidential, according to the laws and rules of the agency and government.”

Like Rogers, Netter is former employee of the sheriff’s office under the previous administration.

Netter served as a detention sergeant at the High Point Jail up to Sept. 1, 2016, when then-Sheriff BJ Barnes approved her termination. Lt. BW Hall, the professional standards officer responsible for the administrative investigation, wrote that Netter violated the sheriff’s offices policy on “the confidentiality of departmental business records” and state law governing “the privacy of employee personnel records.” Over a two-year period, Hall found, Netter “not only inspected the files of officers whom she had no supervisory authority over, but took physical possession of these files and shared them with a human resources investigator, the EEOC, and her personal attorney.”

Last month, three federal appellate judges reviewed Netter’s civil rights case against Barnes, and found that Netter “violated a valid, generally applicable state law,” adding, “Netter does not meaningfully dispute that these actions, standing alone, violated NC Gen. Stat. § 153A-98(f), which establishes a Class 3 misdemeanor for ‘knowingly and willfully examin[ing]…, remov[ing], or copy[ing] any portion of a confidential personnel file’ without authorized access.” According to the ruling, Netter obtained the personnel files of three other employees at the High Point jail “through a personal request to a co-worker.”

The court acknowledged that Netter — as a black, Muslim woman pursuing a claim that she was effectively denied an opportunity for promotion on the basis of race and religion — was in a difficult position.

“Absent unusual evidence of overt animus, a plaintiff seeking to prove unlawful discrimination in employment will generally need to produce evidence of comparators, or similarly-situated employees of a different race, color, religion, sex or national origin who have been treated differently,” Judge Diana Gribbon Motz wrote. “Because salaries, disciplinary infractions, and the like often remain confidential, it may be difficult for an employee to realize — let alone prove — that such evidence exists.”

Netter wrote in her complaint with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that she asked to be tested for promotion in November 2014, and that she was told by her captain that she could not do so “due to being on disciplinary action.”

“However, my disciplinary action was due to a traffic citation which was dismissed,” Netter wrote. “However, other white male officers who are non-Muslim, have been charged with serious criminal offenses including domestic violation, DWI and other serious offenses, yet they have not been disciplined and are allowed to test and be promoted. On or about February 20, 2015, I learned that a white/Hispanic detention services officer was recently charged with a domestic violence charge yet was not disciplined and instead allowed to test and promoted to master corporal.”

US District Court Judge Catherine Eagles, whose opinion was upheld by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled against Netter, finding that she had “not identified any evidence in support of her assertion that officers not of her race or religion were allowed to take the promotional test while on disciplinary status.”

Judge Eagles wrote, “She identifies only one potential comparator, Officer EU, a white detention officer who was promoted despite having a pending domestic violence charge, which Ms. Netter contends was a much more serious issue than Ms. Netter’s misconduct.” Eagles went on to say that while Netter provided evidence that the white detention officer had a pending criminal charge, she couldn’t show that he was on disciplinary status, or that the white officer was promoted while the criminal charge was pending. The judge cited testimony from a captain that a disciplinary charge was not sustained against the white detention officer.

Judge Eagles concluded that “no reasonable jury could find that the sheriff discriminated against Ms. Netter in not considering her for promotion based on her disciplinary status.”

Eagles also dismissed Netter’s claim that Barnes retaliated by firing her for disclosing personnel files to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and to her lawyer.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit upheld Judge Eagle’s ruling that Netter failed to prove retaliation. The Fourth Circuit dismissed Netter’s claim that her violation of state law was protected by an overriding authority under federal civil rights law. The Fourth Circuit ruled there was no conflict between state and federal law in Netter’s case, finding that she “had access to — and utilized — civil discovery procedures without any demonstrated need to unlawfully review or copy confidential personnel information.”

Netter declined to comment for this story, and Sheriff Rogers could not be reached prior to publication.

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A former employee of the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office and High Point Police Department, Danny Rogers put change and inclusion at the forefront of his campaign, promising “a positive change for all Guilford County citizens.” Without leveling direct accusations of discrimination against his opponent, Rogers’ presented himself in positive contrast by pledging to uphold a “fair and equitable work environment for all employees.”

When Rogers took the oath of office on Monday, he did so as part of a historic wave of seven men and women who are the first African Americans to hold the position of highest sworn law enforcement officer in their respective counties. Michael Grace, a private lawyer in Winston-Salem, attributed the outcome to a sentiment shared by voters in urban counties who “didn’t like what the prior sheriffs had been doing.” He added, “What these sheriffs failed to do was hire and promote from within their ranks people who looked other than they.”

Netter’s lawsuit and a separate lawsuit against Barnes in both his official and personal capacities by Terry Hairston II, who was also employed at the High Point Jail, allege extensive discrimination by former sheriff.

A brief filed by Netter’s lawyer in January 2017 alleged that Barnes “consistently segregates the ‘patrol’ and ‘detention’ units along racial lines, refuses to promote black officers in the patrol unit past a certain low rank, excludes black officers from specialized teams, tests for promotion in an unverifiable manner, often passing over highly qualified black candidates…, and, since bringing in an outside agency to perform promotion testing (which every officer failed), has ignored the results of the test and promoted an underqualified white officer white officer over a highly qualified black officer.” The brief went on to say that Netter was prepared to present evidence of up to 30 instances of discrimination.

Many of the examples are also cited in a federal lawsuit filed in December 2015 by Hairston, who worked as a shift lieutenant at the High Point jail.

In 2012, Hairston applied for an open position for transportation sergeant, which he sought because the 8 a.m.-to-5 p.m. scheduled was preferable to the 12-hour rotating shift he was then working. Barnes acknowledged in a court filing that a white male was appointed to the transportation sergeant position instead of Hairston, who is black.

Hairston’s pending lawsuit against the sheriff cites the racial divide between detention and patrol as evidence of a pattern of discrimination within the sheriff’s office under Barnes. Hairston contends, “Employees in the patrol unit receive superior pay and benefits, and patrol is generally considered to be a more desirable unit than detention.”

Barnes’ June 2017 response states in rebuttal “that patrol officers and detention officers receive the same pay and Guilford County-regulated benefits.”

Hairston contends: “In the 22 years that Barnes has been sheriff, no black patrol officer has ever exceeded the rank of master corporal and only two have attained the rank of master corporal. This is out of approximately 100 individuals who have reached the rank of master corporal.”

Barnes’ response denies the claim.

In an answer to the claims of discrimination during an interview with Triad City Beat, Barnes cited endorsements from Clarence Henderson, a black conservative who participated in the 1960 Woolworth’s sit-ins in Greensboro, and Chuck Williamson, a African-American major who oversaw the court services bureau under Barnes before his retirement in June.

“You got promoted at the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office based on merit,” Barnes said. “You got promoted because you knew what you were doing, you passed the test. It didn’t have to do with color or sex. I had captains, majors, lieutenants all who were African-American; they got promoted because they deserved it.”

In May 2014, during Barnes’ re-election campaign for his sixth and final term, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a formal determination that the Guilford County Sheriff’s Office’s policy and practice of using credit information to screen job applicants disproportionately hurt black applicants. Jose Rosenberg, director of the EEOC’s Greensboro office, wrote that there was “sufficient evidence and reasonable cause to believe” that the sheriff’s office discriminated against “a class of black applicants in violation of Title VII by closing their applications due to credit information, thereby denying them further consideration in the hiring process.”

Barnes said the sheriff’s office voluntarily changed the policy to comply with federal civil rights law.

The week before Rogers took the oath of office, Barnes complained that the incoming administration had issued dismissals to numerous employees. The outgoing sheriff said the office is losing seasoned employees with decades of experience, and he cited the hardship placed on the fired employees, including one who had only been on the job as a detention officer for nine months after completing his training, and another who was out on family medical leave as a new father.

Rogers responded in a press release prior to taking office that 14 full-time employees were terminated, not counting part-time personnel. City Beat has a pending public records request for the names and positions of the eliminated employees. Sheriff’s Attorney Jim Secor said the documents have been compiled, but he’s waiting for Sheriff Rogers to authorize their release.

“Some of those part-time workers would come and go at their leisure and were not really needed,” Rogers said in the press release. “This was a waste of taxpayers’ money.”

Barnes declined to name any of the terminated employees. But he darkly alluded to Catherine Netter’s appointment as executive administrative officer, and one of the terminated employees.

“You’ll see there’s a connection,” he promised.

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