Black police captain sues SFPD alleging racial discrimination, harassment

Yulanda Williams says she was targeted for calling out racism in the department

An acting San Francisco police captain who has spoken out against racism in the Police Department in the past is suing The City after facing what she describes as years of racial discrimination and harassment at the hands of her colleagues.

Yulanda Williams, an African American woman who once led an organization for black officers, filed the lawsuit Wednesday against the Police Department, a commander and the former head of the rank-and-file officers union.

Williams is seeking $2.5 million in damages.

The lawsuit lists more than four years worth of incidents involving Williams beginning after the revelation in 2015 that a group of officers had exchanged racist text messages that included remarks about her.

In her lengthy complaint, Williams first details a pattern of alleged retaliation by the San Francisco Police Officers Association and its former president, Martin Halloran, for being vocal about racism in the department.

She then accuses a recently promoted police commander, Denise Flaherty, of harassing her for wearing her hair in a natural hairstyle, saying that Flaherty “has a severe problem and is biased against ethnic hair.”

Halloran could not immediately be reached for comment. His successor, Tony Montoya, declined to comment without having read the complaint.

A spokesperson for the Police Department referred the San Francisco Examiner to the City Attorney’s Office for comment.

“We haven’t been served with the lawsuit, and we’re not going to comment until we’ve had a chance to review it,” said John Cote, a spokesperson for the office.

In 2016, Williams testified about the mistreatment of minority officers to a panel on bias in policing. She alleges the SFPOA was empowered to retaliate against her for speaking out under former Chief Greg Suhr.

Williams said she feared for her own safety after the union “attacked” her in newspapers and letters. That January, Halloran sent a letter to Williams and more than 2,000 of her colleagues saying he was “disturbed” by her comments to the panel.

After leaving the union alongside more than a dozen officers shortly thereafter, Williams said the SFPOA posted a list of their names at police stations in retaliation. The officers were mostly people of color.

In July 2016, Williams said an officer told her during a Black Lives Matter march that she needed to be allegiant to “the blue and pick a side. Pick blue over black.” Williams responded “that she is a black woman and will always be black, and just happens [to] wear blue to pay the bills,” the lawsuit said.

By June 2017, officers including a former union board member allegedly shared a photograph of Williams shopping in her police uniform. The photo ended up on social media and prompted an internal investigation.

“This circulation of the photograph and growing gossip campaign appeared calculated to derail her potential promotion,” the lawsuit said.

In April 2018, Williams said she was counseled by police brass for speaking with the San Francisco Examiner about an officer who alleged he was the victim of whistleblower retaliation. Williams, who did not have direct knowledge of the allegations, said they were “ridiculous” if true.

Commander David Lazar allegedly told Williams her comments made Police Chief Bill Scott “really upset,” according to the lawsuit. Williams said she was told not to make further comments to the press.

Also last year, Williams said then-police captain Flaherty complained about her hair repeatedly.

The lawsuit alleges that white female officers who wear their hair in pony tails or braids out of compliance with department policy “are not scrutinized to the same level.” Williams also claims Flaherty ordered SFPD recruits to take pictures of her “and conduct secret uniform inspections.”

Williams is being represented by attorney Russell Robinson. The lawsuit is filed in San Francisco Superior Court.

mbarba@sfexaminer.com

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