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Former Tampa police corporal claims discrimination in lawsuit against city

John Fitzgerald alleges he was demoted and transferred after objecting to orders that he break the department’s training protocol to help a Black probationary officer.
In a video posted to the Tampa Police Department's Facebook page Sept. 21, 2019, Cpl. John Fitzgerald responds to his ceremonial final radio call before retiring. Fitzgerald filed a discrimination lawsuit on April 29 alleging he was demoted and transferred after he objected to breaking department training protocol to help a Black probationary officer.
In a video posted to the Tampa Police Department's Facebook page Sept. 21, 2019, Cpl. John Fitzgerald responds to his ceremonial final radio call before retiring. Fitzgerald filed a discrimination lawsuit on April 29 alleging he was demoted and transferred after he objected to breaking department training protocol to help a Black probationary officer. [ Facebook ]
Published May 19
Updated May 19

TAMPA — A white former Tampa police officer has filed a lawsuit against the city claiming he was told to break department protocol to help a Black probationary officer and was demoted and transferred after he objected.

Former Cpl. John Fitzgerald says he was a casualty of the city’s push to diversify its police ranks and that after his demotion he was replaced by a Black corporal with less experience, according to the lawsuit filed April 29 in U.S. District Court.

Rather than work in the new assignment, Fitzgerald retired after 22 years with the department. He wants to be reinstated and awarded back pay and damages.

“Before all this happened, I don’t think he had any intention of leaving the force,” said his attorney, Gary Printy Jr. “He had a lengthy career with the Tampa Police Department, it was a role he took very seriously and had a lot of pride in, and it was unfortunate how it ended.”

A police spokeswoman said the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Fitzgerald was a corporal in the field training squad of the department’s District II in 2019 when the discrimination and retaliation happened, according to the lawsuit. He was responsible for making sure field training officers and probationary officers complied with the department’s training program.

In August of that year, a Black female probationary officer was struggling with field training exercises required to advance through the program. Fitzgerald worked with the probationary officer but she was not earning passing scores, the suit says. The Times is not naming the probationary officer because she’s not a party to the suit. A police spokesman said she is no longer with the department.

A captain and lieutenant agreed that the officer should get remedial training to review scenarios for determining when to use force. Fitzgerald recommended that she receive another two-week extension of the training program so she could attend the training and improve her performance on the shift evaluations.

Assistant Chief Lee Bercaw saw the officer was at risk of failing the training program if she received a low score on her shift set for Aug. 30, so he directed then-Capt. Michael Stout to suspend evaluations of the officer, the suit claims. Stout, who is now a major in District II, told the field training officer to halt evaluations of the probationary officer until she attended the remedial training.

That decision violated department protocol that requires trainees to be scored on every shift they work, according to the complaint.

“Allowing a probationary officer to temporarily avoid evaluations undermines the evaluation process and gives that probationary officer an unfair advantage over the other trainees,” the complaint states.“It could also allow an officer to graduate from the program without being adequately prepared to work on the streets.”

Fitzgerald and Sgt. Liza Doane told a lieutenant they objected to the move. In a meeting, Stout confronted Doane, the suit claims.

“Captain Stout falsely alleged that District II had been failing all of the Black probationary officers and that she (Sergeant Doane) needed to get on board with the Mayor’s agenda to hire and promote more Black police officers,” the complaint states.

Shortly after, according to the lawsuit, Stout announced that Doane and Fitzgerald were being demoted from their positions as field training officers and transferred out of District II. When Fitzgerald asked why he was being transferred, Stout told him that he wanted to go in a different direction and that Fitzgerald had no performance issues, the complaint states.

When Stout told Fitzgerald he would be transferred to a corporal position for school resource officers in the same district, Fitzgerald said he didn’t want that assignment and would prefer to transfer to the department’s Real Time Crime Center. Stout later told Fitzgerald he couldn’t be transferred there, according to the complaint.

During another meeting with Stout, Fitzgerald again asked why he was being transferred. Stout replied that he was being transferred for the sake of diversity on the field training officer squad, the suit states.

“Tampa’s police Chief, Brian Dugan, had instructed the captains and assistant chiefs to look for opportunities to replace white police officers with Black police officers in order to increase the diversity of the department,” the complaint states.

Stout told Fitzgerald to compile a list of places he’d like to be transferred to. Fitzgerald put the department’s District III at the bottom of the list because he was worried he could face retribution for work he’d done with the Internal Affairs Division on a controversial investigation involving officers in that district.

A few days later, he was informed he’d be transferred to a detective position in District III. To take Fitzgerald’s place, Stout selected a Black male corporal who had less time with the department, less time as a corporal and was “significantly less qualified than Fitzgerald to fill the role,” the suit states.

Fitzgerald filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on Sept. 24, 2019, and retired four days later “rather than work under duress in District III,” the suit states. He received permission from the Department of Justice in February to file a lawsuit.

The city showed “a deliberate indifference to the racial discrimination and retaliation suffered by” Fitzgerald, according to the suit.

The Times submitted to the Tampa Police Department interview requests for Dugan, Bercaw and Stout. A police spokesman reiterated that the city doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits. Sgt. Doane still works with the department, the spokesman said, but efforts to reach her were unsuccessful.

The complaint says Fitzgerald had achieved high marks during his career and had no disciplinary history. Printy, his attorney, said his client supports efforts to diversify the department’s ranks.

“He’s in total agreement with that goal,” Printy said. “He just took exception to the way he and Sgt. Doane were treated.”