Ex-Forest Park police officer: I was fired for being white

Forest Park City Hall in a file photo.

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Forest Park City Hall in a file photo.

When the city of Forest Park fired Maj. Chris Matson, a veteran of the Police Department, the reason given was simple.

A newly appointed chief had ordered a review of the department and its employees’ work in mid-2019. The audit report said there was evidence that Matson, who sold off excess ammunition for the agency, kept shoddy records on the transactions and couldn’t explain what happened to some of the money.

“In fact, you admitted that there was approximately $1,000 to $1,200 of funds from the sale of ammunition under your control and responsibility that is currently missing,” an official wrote in a November 2019 letter terminating Matson and spelling out how he’d violated various policies.

But Matson, who denied any wrongdoing with the ammo, says he was fired because he was a high-ranking white person in a department that city leaders were bent on making majority-Black. Matson, who filed suit last week against the city in U.S. District Court in Atlanta, says he isn’t the only one who left the department because of discrimination.

But the city and its leaders have said anyone who was fired deserved to be, and any allegations that they’re against white employees are false, clearly undercut by the fact that there are still some white city officials.

“It is a farce,” Mayor Angelyne Butler said of Matson’s allegations Tuesday.

Forest Park, a northern Clayton County city of 20,000, nine miles south of Atlanta, is mostly Black. When Matson started at the Police Department in 1992, it was mostly white. But by 2010, the city was majority Black and Black residents’ share of the population would only grow.

Matson said he believes Forest Park crossed the line, though he does understand the general need for diversity in law enforcement.

“I think every police department should do their best to incorporate all races and ethnicities and sexes,” he said in an interview Tuesday. “We tried for many years to do that.”

The audit that preceded Matson’s termination also led to other firings. Matson’s attorney Steven Newton said it’s clear the audit was a way the city figured it could find reasons to fire white officers.

Newton said Matson had the blessing of the former police chief for how he handled the sale of the ammunition.

“I think every police department should do their best to incorporate all races and ethnicities and sexes."

- Former Forest Park police Maj. Chris Matson

Laura Denton, an attorney representing the city, explained in a filing that a number of city employees and officials were replaced or terminated after a new mayor and City Council took over. The council voted to fire longtime Police Chief Dwayne Hobbs. The council also replaced all members of the city ethics board and passed progressive legislation, such as reducing the penalty for possession of marijuana.

“With the regime change came a fundamental change in the makeup and philosophy of the council with respect to the role of all departments but in particular, the city’s police department,” Denton wrote to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission after Matson lodged a discrimination complaint against the city. “With public confidence at an all-time low, the new administration could not afford to create the impression that it was ‘business as usual’ at City Hall.”

After reviewing Matson’s claims and the city’s response, the EEOC found no violations of anti-discrimination statutes, though Matson hopes for a different result in federal court.

“It is a farce."

- Forest Park Mayor Angelyne Butler, in response to Matson’s allegations of racial discrimination

The EEOC made the same determination in the case of the fired police chief. Hobbs sued the city in September, saying he’d been fired because he is white.

Hobbs’ suit was the latest development in his long feud with Forest Park, a feud that involved the complaints some elected city leaders had with the Police Department.

Councilmembers accused him of various misconduct, including racial profiling, surveilling city council members and mismanaging the department. Hobbs, who denied all the allegations, worked at the police department for 45 years before his 2018 termination.

Councilmembers said they wanted to go in “a different direction” with the police chief position. Matson and Hobbs felt that meant the officials wanted to hire someone Black, though councilmembers dispute that.

Hobbs was replaced with Nathaniel Clark, who was sworn in last year after a national search. Clark is Black, but councilmembers said he was chosen for his experience.

In an April 2020 resignation letter, Capt. Daniel Podsiadly said he decided to retire after 24 years with the agency because he was concerned about the direction Clark was taking.

“Since Chief Clark’s appointment as chief, I (and many others) noted that our recruitment efforts solely focused on Black officers,” wrote Podsiadly, who is white.

After Matson was fired, he said he struggled financially because he didn’t get his retirement money for months, and during the delay, his accounts lost $93,000. He’s asking for a determination to be made in court on how much compensation he should get for all the trouble and distress it caused.

“It’s embarrassing for me to have to borrow money from friends and family to stay alive,” Matson said.