Ousted white lieutenant sues Gwinnett sheriff claiming race discrimination

Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor, with Cobb County Sheriff Clyde Owens, right, at his side on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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Gwinnett County Sheriff Keybo Taylor, with Cobb County Sheriff Clyde Owens, right, at his side on Tuesday, June 29, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

A former lieutenant in the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office, who was forced to retire last year after an investigation into a use-of-force incident, says in a lawsuit that he was illegally terminated because he was white.

The lawsuit was filed against the Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Keybo Taylor and Chief Cleophas Atwater.

Joe Buice, 51, had worked for the sheriff’s office since 1998 and was commander of the Rapid Response Team at the Gwinnett County Jail in May 2020, when a deputy on the team pulled an inmate down and pushed on his legs in a way that was determined to be improper.

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Taylor was elected later that year as Gwinnett’s first Black sheriff. About a week after Taylor took office, Buice was suspended while the May incident was investigated, according to the lawsuit. Buice received a termination notice in March 2021, but chose to have it recorded as a retirement instead, said his attorney, Matthew C. Billips of Barrett & Farahany.

Buice had reviewed video of the incident, determined the use of force was inappropriate, discussed it with then-Sheriff Butch Conway and referred it to the internal affairs division, Billips said. At Conway’s direction, Buice declined a request to be interviewed by the internal affairs investigator because Buice had no further knowledge of the incident, Billips said. Buice answered questions about the incident on a separate occasion, his attorney said.

According to the lawsuit, Buice was told he was being terminated for dishonesty, interfering with an investigation and failing to perform his duty.

The lawsuit states Buice’s supervisor, Assistant Chief Marcelino LaBoy, told him the termination was not personal and he’d been caught in a “political racial war.” Under Taylor’s leadership, several white employees in upper management were replaced by Black employees “in what amounted to a race based spoils system,” the lawsuit says, adding that Buice was fired on “a pretext.”

The upper ranks of the sheriff’s office went from predominantly white to predominantly Black, said Billips.

“It’s not a problem in and of itself,” Billips said. “It is a problem if the reason for it is the desire to have people of a particular race in those positions, and it doesn’t matter what race you’re talking about, racial discrimination is racial discrimination.”

LaBoy did not return a message seeking comment.

The sheriff’s office Thursday issued a statement that reads, in part, “Race, color, ethnicity, age, gender, socioeconomic status, or sexual orientation is not a factor in determining the employment, termination, or promotional advancement of employees within our agency.” The office declined to elaborate further, citing the pending nature of the litigation.

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Buice is employed with another law enforcement agency in metro Atlanta, Billips said.

He is suing under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fourteenth Amendment. The lawsuit asks for a jury trial, back pay from the date of Buice’s termination, damages for mental and emotional suffering, punitive damages, retroactive reinstatement or pay in lieu of it, attorney’s fees and a ruling that Buice’s rights were violated.