TAMPA — A former Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy has filed a lawsuit claiming he suffered discrimination at the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office and retaliation by officials including Sheriff Chad Chronister.
Willie Edom Jr., who is Black, alleges he was the subject of “disparate treatment” during his 23-year career at the Sheriff’s Office due to “systemic racism” and for reporting illegal activity at the office, according to the complaint filed in Hillsborough County Circuit Court on June 21.
Edom joined the agency in 1994 and was forced to resign in 2017 after a flawed internal affairs investigation and biased vote by a disciplinary review board that included Chronister, the suit claims.
A spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office released a brief statement from Chronister to the Tampa Bay Times.
“We are aware of the lawsuit, deny the allegations, and will respond through the legal process,” the statement said. “In the meantime, I would recommend you submit a public records request to review the circumstances resulting in his termination.”
The Times submitted a request and the personnel file was not immediately available.
Edom’s lawsuit offers his account of what led to his departure from the agency. He claims that he resigned when he should have been allowed to retire after being injured on the job.
“The actions taken over the years did fit the bill of systemic racism,” Tallahassee attorney Marie Mattox, who is representing Edom, told the Times. “What happened to him was wrong.”
The lawsuit says the problems started as early as 1996, when Edom was assigned to a street crimes squad. According to the complaint, Edom and other black deputies were not allowed to attend advancement courses while white squad members attended two or more courses per year. When Edom asked to take courses, a major “told him not to worry about promotion because he was needed on the streets as a role model,” the suit says.
“Since a deputy was required to attend these advancement courses in order to be considered for promotion, he was never considered for promotion,” the suit says.
The suit also claims Edom was demoted to desk deputy for three years after he refused an “unethical and illegal” request. A captain asked him to contact the State Attorney’s Office to drop charges against a suspect who pulled a gun on another deputy during a 1999 traffic stop, the suit says. The captain made the request as a “personal favor” and in return offered Edom a promotion, the suit says.
In or around 2001, Edom told another major about “illegal and racist” activities by other deputies. The suit says deputies frequently stopped Black males “simply because they were labeled ‘suspicious persons’” and illegally arrested Black males for trespassing without giving them warnings. Edom claims he also saw deputies search the pockets of black males without probable cause. According to the suit, the major told Edom to be “a team player” and never reported the deputies’ practices.
Between 2004 and 2006, Edom reported to Internal Affairs that a corporal had made racist jokes, the suit says. Edom said he was told he had to make a complaint with his commanding officer. Shortly after, the suit says, Edom was the subject of a “sham investigation” into an allegation that he called a white coworker a “cracker.” The suit says the allegation was not substantiated.
In 2011, Edom helped organize a project to launch the Freddie Solomon Boys and Girls Club at the Nuccio Recreation Center in Tampa. The club opened in 2013. For the next few years, according to the suit, Edom relayed concerns at the club to sheriff’s Sgt. Thomas St. John, such as club staff having sex in closets. The complaint says Edom was told he would be written up if he didn’t follow previous orders to report the issues to the club supervisor, a civilian.
St. John, who is now a major on Chronister’s command staff in charge of the Community Outreach Division, is also listed as a defendant in the lawsuit.
Also in 2016, Edom reported to the club director and supervisor that a female club employee tried to have an inappropriate sexual conversation with him and made sexually suggestive comments. The club employee, in turn, alleged to the director that Edom had made comments that made her uncomfortable, the suit says.
The Sheriff’s Office launched an internal affairs investigation. The suit says the internal affairs investigator used unsubstantiated claims and misrepresented facts to incriminate Edom. The investigator concluded the claims of sexual harassment and untruthfulness were substantiated, and recommended he be fired.
According to the suit, Edom was told by another major that Chronister, a colonel at the time, was “out to get” Edom and went over the major’s head to launch the internal investigation.
Edom appealed the decision. The suit says the office’s Complaint Review Board voted 4-1 against termination but the Sheriff’s Office moved forward with termination anyway.
In December 2016, Edom had surgery for prostate cancer and took leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. The following March, while still on leave, he had back surgery to address an injury from an on-duty crash caused by another driver. The suit says the Sheriff’s Office denied him medical benefits, forcing him to use vacation and sick time, and in May 2017 sent him a letter threatening termination for overstaying his leave if he didn’t return. According to the complaint, Edom had not yet exhausted his vacation and sick time but returned to work in “excruciating pain” to avoid being fired.
The office’s Disciplinary Review Board heard his appeal that July. During the hearing, Chronister, who sat on the board, falsely stated that Edom had admitted the allegations, the suit claims. The board sustained allegations of sexual harassment and conduct unbecoming and recommended Edom’s termination.
The suit says the office targeted Edom, manufactured the charge and “pursued it more vigorously than they did for real allegations of sexual misconduct against white employees.”
According to the suit, the Sheriff’s Office “constructively terminated” Edom on July 12 after someone submitted a false memo stating Edom was not appealing the review board’s decision. The suit says a benefits supervisor told him that a colonel told the supervisor to force Edom to resign instead of allowing him to retire. The suit claims the colonel was Chronister. Edom resigned “under duress,” the suit says.
The complaint says then-Chief Deputy Jose Docobo overrode the review board’s recommendation and modified the file to show Edom had resigned in good standing. Despite this, his personnel file still includes information about a “red separation,” or termination, status, “thereby negligently allowing this stigmatizing information to prevent him from gaining employment with other law enforcement agencies,” the suit says. The complaint says he was also denied Cobra insurance for this reason.
Edom is seeking monetary damages and other relief from the court “including but not limited to reinstatement.”