Photo: Jennifer Silverberg
Mayor Alvin Parks did not have much to smile about Wednesday.
Two black residents of East St. Louis won a civil rights lawsuit this week in southern Illinois complaining that they were harassed and discriminated against when they recommended that the predominately black city hire a white police chief and white police officers.
Wyatt Frazer and Della Murphy were serving on the city's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners in the fall of 2007 when they were unceremoniously fired shortly after going to bat for a white patrol officer they wanted to hire over the objections of East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks and city manager Robert Betts.
According to Frazer and Murphy's attorney, Tom Kennedy, Parks and Betts harassed the white candidate during a job interview, encouraging him to look for work elsewhere and asking why he was racist.
A similar situation occurred months earlier when the commission recommended hiring a decorated officer -- who happened to be white -- as the city's top cop. In court, Frazer testified that Parks told him that "East St. Louis wasn't ready to hire a white police chief." The city then went ahead and hired a lesser-qualified black candidate over the recommendation from the fire and police commission, according to the suit.
In December 2006, Frazer and Murphy claim city officials repeatedly asked them to reconsider hiring two white officers. When they did not, the city quit paying the fire and police commission its monthly stipend of $250 and took away their meeting space and office supplies.
Eventually, on October 17, 2007, Parks and city manager Robert Betts, in coordination with the city council, voted to dissolve the three-person fire and police commission on which Frazer and Murphy served. The city then re-formed the commission that very same day, extending invites only to the third board member who'd attended just two meetings in 22 months before the commission was dissolved, according to attorney Kennedy.
"It's just horse manure," Kennedy, tells Daily RFT
. "The action of the city toward my clients was disgusting. These are two people who've lived in East St. Louis for decades and were trying to improve their community. This is a blatant case of reverse discrimination on the part of the city. And my clients paid the price standing up against it."
Following a two-and-a-half-day trial that wrapped up Wednesday in federal court in Benton, Illinois, jurors found that Parks, Betts and the city conspired to violate Frazer and Murphy's civil rights by targeting them for their statutorily protected advocacy of the white officers. Jurors sided with they city on another count that specifically claimed city officials retaliated against the plaintiffs for exercising their First Amendment rights.
In the end, jurors awarded Frazer and Murphy $5,500 each in compensatory damages and $15,000 each in punitive damages. Attorney Kennedy notes that the punitive damages exceeded the $10,000 his clients requested.
"This was never about money," says Kennedy. "It was about restoring the names of Wyatt Frazer and Della Murphy. They're thrilled with the verdict and couldn't be happier."
Under federal law for civil rights suits, East St. Louis will have to pay Kennedy's attorney fees provided the verdict stands and the case is not appealed.
Michael Baxton Jr., the police chief the city hired over Frazer and Murphy's recommendation has since resigned. Kennedy tells Daily RFT
that his clients wanted the city to hire Ron Grimming, an East St. Louis native whose father once owned a grocery store in town. Grimming went on to ascend the ranks of the Illinois State Police before being hired to lead the Florida Highway Patrol.
"He was willing to come out of retirement because he wanted to help his hometown," says Kennedy.