A DeKalb County city is being sued by a former police officer who claims he was discriminated against because he is Asian.
The lawsuit against the city of Doraville alleges a superior at the department ridiculed the officer over his background, and that the city did not properly investigate the complaints he raised.
It also brings up the issue of diversity on the police force in a city with a significant Asian population. Doraville currently employs no Asian police officers, the city said Thursday.
Fred Phan, 51, joined Doraville police last March after emigrating from Vietnam in 1982 and serving in the U.S. Army and two local police departments.
“The real injustice to me in this case is that you have a man who has served our country who … in the process of working in a highly populated Asian community, is made fun of for his language at work,” said Jim McCabe, the Atlanta attorney representing Phan. “It’s surprising to me, in this day and age, that that would be permitted.”
About 15 percent of Doraville’s population is Asian, one of the highest percentages in the state, according to the latest estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. The city of 10,500 is home to a large portion of Buford Highway, considered the epicenter of international culture in metro Atlanta and renowned for its authentic Asian eateries. Doraville also prides itself on its immigrant-owned small business community.
But there was only one other Asian officer at the police department when Phan was employed there, according to the lawsuit. The department has about 40 sworn officers total.
Now, there are no Asian officers, the city said in response to an open records request from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. More than 60 percent of the officers are white, and a quarter are black. The department has a total of four officers who identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to the city.
Phan claims his supervisor and a fellow officer mocked him because he is Asian. The lawsuit said the officer often made noises mimicking an Asian language and asked Phan to “translate” it. The officer also allegedly made fun of Phan’s age and told him to “show me how you pray in the temple.” Phan’s watch commander laughed at him when he complained about the harassment, the lawsuit states.
The suit claims the city did not investigate Phan’s claims or interview his coworkers after the officer complained about the situation to City Manager Regina Williams-Gates and Mayor Donna Pittman.
Williams-Gates said in a statement that Doraville is committed to equal employment opportunity principles, and that “we fully embrace diversity, and promote all-inclusiveness.”
She declined to comment in-depth on the ongoing litigation.
“Our position will be made clear once our attorneys prepare and file our response. For now, suffice it to say that the claims and allegations presented in the lawsuit are strongly denied,” Williams-Gates said.
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Through his attorney, Phan declined an interview for this story.
According to the suit, Phan submitted his resignation from the department early this year, to be effective mid-March.
“However, he then decided that he would not let them get the ‘best’ of him and attempted to retract his resignation a couple weeks before it was effective,” the lawsuit states, adding that Williams-Gates denied the request because the resignation had already been accepted.
During his time as an officer, Phan was written up a few times over apparent rule violations, including not wearing a body camera. But the suit claims that white and non-Asian officers “did the same thing and were not disciplined.”
The lawsuit was filed on the grounds of the Fourteenth Amendment, which is often cited in equal rights and protections cases. After it is served to the city, Doraville will have 21 days to respond to it. The suit asks for unspecified punitive and compensatory damages, back pay and possible reinstatement of his job.
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