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Former Tampa police corporal drops discrimination lawsuit against city

The city had denied John Fitzgerald’s allegations that he was demoted and transferred after objecting to orders that he break training protocol to help a Black probationary officer.
In a screenshot from a video posted to the Tampa Police Department's Facebook page in September 2019, then-Cpl. John Fitzgerald responds to his ceremonial final radio call before retiring. Fitzgerald this week dropped a discrimination lawsuit against the city alleging he was demoted and transferred after he objected to breaking department training protocol to help a Black probationary officer.
In a screenshot from a video posted to the Tampa Police Department's Facebook page in September 2019, then-Cpl. John Fitzgerald responds to his ceremonial final radio call before retiring. Fitzgerald this week dropped a discrimination lawsuit against the city alleging he was demoted and transferred after he objected to breaking department training protocol to help a Black probationary officer. [ Facebook ]
Published Oct. 15

TAMPA — A white former Tampa police officer who claimed he was told to break department protocol to help a Black probationary officer and was demoted and transferred after he objected has dropped his lawsuit.

Former Cpl. John Fitzgerald filed suit in U.S District Court in April claiming 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. Rather than work in the new assignment, Fitzgerald retired after 22 years with the department, the suit claimed. He sought to be reinstated along with back pay and damages.

Fitzgerald’s attorney, Gary Printy, Jr., filed a notice of voluntary dismissal on Wednesday, a week after a court-appointed mediator submitted a report stating the two parties had “completely settled” the case after holding a virtual meeting.

The mediator’s filing does not contain any details about how or why the case was settled. Printy did not return a message Thursday seeking comment.

City spokesman Adam Smith said Fitzgerald agreed to dismiss the suit with no compensation from the city. Smith did not provide additional information or comment.

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 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 said.

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 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 an upcoming shift, so he directed then-Capt. Michael Stout to suspend evaluations of the officer, the suit claimed. 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. After Fitzgerald and Sgt. Liza Doane told a lieutenant they objected to the move, 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.

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Shortly after, the lawsuit claimed, Stout announced that Doane and Fitzgerald were being “demoted” from their positions as field training officers and transferred out of District II. Fitzgerald was later 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,” according to the suit.

Fitzgerald filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in September 2019 and retired four days later “rather than work under duress in District III,” the suit stated.

In an answer to the complaint, the city denied that Fitzgerald had been removed from his position for the sake of diversity. The city argued that Fitzgerald had failed to show officials had retaliated against him or took any discriminatory action based on his race under the Civil Rights Act.

The city’s response said Fitzgerald was not “demoted” because his spot on the field training squad, which came with a $230 monthly stipend, was an assignment at the discretion of the police chief, not a contractual position from which an employee can be demoted.

To the claim that Fitzgerald was replaced with a less experienced Black corporal, the city countered that “neither departmental nor rank seniority is a factor in determining assignment to the training squad.”

The city also denied that allowing a probationary officer to work an ungraded shift violates any “rule” of the city’s field training evaluation program. According to the city’s response, pausing the probationary officer’s evaluations would not affect the number or content of the evaluations that officer was subjected to, and she still would have to demonstrate her readiness to work the streets. The officer’s employment was terminated after she did not pass the third phase of the training program.