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Lawsuit alleges Decatur Police fired officer because of his mental illness, race

Crime and public safety Decatur

Lawsuit alleges Decatur Police fired officer because of his mental illness, race

Peter Bourne, a former Decatur Police Officer, is suing the city. He alleges he was discriminated against due to his mental illness and his race. Photo by Dan Whisenhunt
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Mental illness is common among police officers, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Compared to the general population, law enforcement report much higher rates of depression, PTSD, burnout, and other anxiety related mental health conditions,” NAMI says.

NAMI says that one in four officers has suicidal thoughts at some point in their career and the suicide rate for officers is four times the rate of suicides for firefighters. While NAMI recommends that police departments support officers who are struggling with mental illness, Peter Bourne said his decision to disclose his mental illness to his superiors led to his firing from the Decatur Police Department.

Bourne filed a lawsuit in November that alleges the Police Department discriminated against him on the basis of his mental illness and his race.

“This is the exact reason a lot of people don’t seek out mental health help because they’re afraid if they do and their employer finds out, they’ll get terminated, especially in this line of work,” Bourne said.

In a response, the city of Decatur denied the allegations. Police Chief Mike Booker declined to comment.

Bourne’s lawsuit says he joined the Decatur Police Department in 2012. In August 2016, he was admitted to Ridgeview Hospital where he was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder. After taking three weeks off to deal with his illness, he returned to work in September 2017 and was on the night shift. But the lawsuit says he could not stay awake during his shift due to the medications he was taking.

“The shift supervisor, Sgt. John Bender, told Mr. Bourne to go home and see Chief Mike Booker the next day and ask to be moved to day shift,” the lawsuit says.

Bourne met with Booker and informed him about his condition. He asked if he could be moved to the day shift. Booker asked for a doctor’s note and asked him to undergo a physical examination, the lawsuit says. But before that could happen, the department informed him he was on administrative leave “until further notice.”

The lawsuit says Bourne obtained the doctor’s note, but the department said it wasn’t specific enough. Bourne got another note saying he would need to be on the day shift for three months, but still he remained on administrative leave. During his leave he couldn’t participate in training exercises or take a promotional exam he had singed up for.

“Sgt. Dan Bellis contacted Mr. Bourne while Mr. Bourne was on leave to notify Mr. Bourne that his 4-year recertification was coming up and that the administration at the City of Decatur Police Department refused to schedule this recertification,” the lawsuit says.

In the fall of 2016, Bourne got a call from Dr. Lydia Canty, a psychologist, who told him he was required to see her for a psychological evaluation. He saw her twice and she cleared him to return to work. He was allowed to return in December 2016, but that wasn’t the end of his problems with the department, the lawsuit says.

He completed his recertification in January 2017. In March of 2017, he attended a two-week instructor training course. While he was taking the class, he had problems sleeping, only sleeping 30 minutes one night and three hours the next night.

“This lack of sleep caused Mr. Bourne to have a medical emergency in class in which he had trouble speaking, stuttered, and could not get his hands to stop shaking or fingers to stop moving,” the lawsuit says.

He left the class and saw multiple doctors. The doctors weren’t able to say what caused the trouble during the training course, saying it could be a migraine and was not necessarily related to his mental illness.

Following his visit to the hospital, the Police Department told him to take the rest of the week off. A city personnel director followed up with a letter to Bourne that said the, “city of Decatur believed Mr. Bourne was unable to handle the stress of the job and was therefore a potential threat to the public because he drove a city vehicle and carried a firearm.”

“There is nothing in Mr. Bourne’s work record to suggest that he is unable to safely handle a firearm or drive a vehicle as Mr. Bourne has never been involved in a single traffic accident at work and has never received a complaint regarding the use of his weapon,” the lawsuit says.

The letter said he could not return to work until he was cleared by Mark Ackerman, a psychologist. He was placed on unpaid leave for one month and had to use medical leave to receive a paycheck. He went to Ackerman, as requested.

“Dr. Ackerman expressed confusion as to why Mr. Bourne had been sent to him instead of to a medical doctor for clearance,” the lawsuit says.

He requested Bourne’s personal psychiatric and counseling records. He evaluated him again and said Bourne could go back to work.

But the city would not allow him to return for “multiple weeks,” the lawsuit says. Finally, he was allowed back in May 2017.

“Sgt. Bender told Mr. Bourne that he told other supervisors that Mr. Bourne would be returning to work for range day as part of firearms qualification,” the lawsuit says. “Mr. Bourne was later told by Sgt. Bender that Sgt. Bender heard from one of the chiefs that there had been a sudden change of plans and Mr. Bourne would not be returning to work for range day.”

The city then requested a clarification from Ackerman before Bourne could return to his job, the lawsuit says.

When he was able to return, he was restricted to working day shift even though he no longer needed that accommodation, the lawsuit says. As a result, he missed “multiple overtime opportunities.”

“Around the end of May 2017, Mr. Bourne became sick while at work with some sort of stomach illness that did not interfere with his ability to do his work,” the lawsuit says. “After Mr. Bourne completed his shift, Sgt. Bender told him that he looked sick and offered him a ride home. Sgt. Bender advised Mr. Bourne to stay home the next day, but Mr. Bourne said he would be fine to come in. Nonetheless, Sgt. Bender prevented Mr. Bourne from coming to work the next day.”

The day after he was asked to stay home, he got a call from a supervisor and was asked to report to the office on his day off.

“During the meeting, Captain Matics asked Mr. Bourne why he was sick and asked if the sickness was related to his medical conditions,” the lawsuit says. “Captain Matics stated that the Department could no longer rely on Mr. Bourne to come to work and perform his duties.”

Bourne informed him that Sgt. Bender told him to stay home.

“At the next shift rotation, Mr. Bourne was not permitted to move to night shift with his team and was kept on day shift with a new team, including a new supervisor, Sgt. Brandon Zachery,” the lawsuit says. “In July 2017, Mr. Bourne had lunch with Officer Mark Hensel and told him that he was considering taking legal action against city of Decatur.”

At the end of the month, he was having breakfast with another officer who told Bourne, “They made it sound like you were suicidal the other day.”

When Bourne asked the officer what he meant, the officer said that a lieutenant said he “sure hoped” Bourne wouldn’t be able to make it to range day and said other things that made the officer believe Bourne was suicidal, the lawsuit says.

In early August, Bourne learned that Capt. Kris Boyett had opened an internal affairs investigation into a year-old complaint against him that involved a picture of him sleeping in the passenger seat of a patrol vehicle.

It was, “something for which non-disabled and white employees were not investigated or disciplined,” the lawsuit says.

“During the meeting, Capt. Boyett pressed Mr. Bourne about his medical history and spent most of the interview questioning Mr. Bourne about his disability,” the lawsuit says. “A few days later, Captain Boyett called Mr. Bourne back into her office about the investigation and let Mr. Bourne know about a subsequent investigation relating to a search of a vehicle that occurred on July 16, 2017. The second investigation was based on trumped up charges for which non-disabled and White officers are not investigated or disciplined.”

The suit goes on to allege that, “During the investigation, Mr. Bourne shared with Internal Affairs that his supervisor, Sgt. Zachery, instigated the search Mr. Bourne was being investigated for and that Sgt. Zachery changed a report that Mr. Bourne had written to cover up what happened in the search. Sgt. Zachery, who is not disabled, was not placed on administrative leave.”

The suit says that Bourne on Aug. 30, 2017 filed a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which he amended in January 2018 after the city informed him in December 2017 that he was being fired.

“Neither Sgt. Zachery nor multiple other non-disabled, Caucasian officers, including, but not limited to, Officer Blake, Officer Anthony Copeland, Captain Billy Woodruff, Officer Mark Hensel, Officer Alexander Vots, and Sergeant Bender, who had engaged in the same or similar misconduct that Mr. Bourne was alleged to have engaged in were investigated, placed on administrative leave, or terminated,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit says Bourne’s firing was discrminatory and retaliatory. He received notice of his right to sue from the EEOC in August 2018.

In its response, the city asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed and that Bourne be ordered to pay the city’s attorneys fees and other costs for its defense against the lawsuit.

Bourne told Decaturish that he has been unable to find another job as a police officer while his lawsuit is pending.

He said mental illness is something officers often don’t disclose out of fear for their jobs.

“We kind of keep it under wraps and don’t talk about it,” Bourne said. “Everyone is afraid if you bring it up, you’re going to get fired. And here we are.”

To see a copy of Bourne’s lawsuit and the city’s response, click here and here.

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