The Atlanta Police Department’s former LGBT liaison is suing the city of Atlanta in federal court, claiming anti-gay bias from a fellow employee as well as the department using her grand mal seizures as reasons to demote her and threaten to fire her.
Darlene Harris, who also goes by Dani Lee Harris, filed the suit in U.S. District Court on July 22. The lawsuit, however, has been in the works since late 2009 following the botched raid on the gay bar, the Atlanta Eagle, in September 2009, and following her filing in April 2010 a complaint with the APD’s Office of Professional Standards alleging sexual discrimination and defamatory language by a co-worker.
In December 2009 and April 2010, Harris suffered two grand mal seizures and asked the APD to help accommodate her with the disability as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act of 2008. The APD denied any help or assistance, according to the lawsuit, and in fact “retaliated” against her after the filed an official complaint stating a colleague had used anti-gay language toward her. She said at the time she also believed APD administrators believed she contributed to the controversy following the raid on the Atlanta Eagle.
“Defendant [the city] forced Plaintiff to take involuntary and unpaid medical leave due to her disability, her request for an accommodation, and in retaliation for her complaints regarding the discriminatory comments made to her, and APD’s failure to accommodate her disability,” states the lawsuit.
The APD and city has not yet returned a request for comment.
Abuse began in April 2010, states lawsuit
According to the lawsuit, Atlanta Police administrative assistant Sandy Bradley demeaned Harris at work by referring to her sexual orientation and sexual identity in two separate incidents, one on Feb. 18, 2010, and again on April 13, 2010.
Bradley told Harris, who had come out publicly as intersex, “Why you gay, I don’t understand?” the suit states. Bradley also told Harris she was “confused” and told her “why can’t you settle in with a man and get the same feelings or emotions from a heterosexual relationship.” The suit states Bradley went on to say, “I want to tell you something Harris, I really like you, but what I don’t like about you is that you walk around here like a fucking man with a dick.” Bradley also told Harris, “if she ever had kids at the APD she would not be comfortable having her kids around the Plaintiff.”
Harris informed her superiors immediately after she suffered the gran mal seizures and also on April 16, 2010, complained she was being discriminated against based on sex stereotyping. On April 18, 2010, Harris was sent home from work with no reason why she was being sent him or a date for when she would return, she said.
Harris states in the lawsuit she was not allowed to borrow donated time for her forced medical leave although it was fairly common practice in the department to do so for those out for extended periods of time.
“From April to October 2010, Plaintiff was forced out of her position as GLBT Liaison and placed on an involuntarily medical leave despite being capable of performing the essential functions of her job as GLBT Liaison. During this six month time period, Plaintiff was not allowed to return to work, was not compensated, and was denied donated leave time,” the suit states.
While Harris was out on medical leave, Mayor Kasim Reed hired two new LGBT liaison officers, first Officer Patricia Powell and later Officer Brian Sharp, to follow through with a promise he made during his candidacy as part of his response to the blowback from the Eagle raid. He was elected in November 2009 and sworn into office in January 2010.
At a May 2010 public forum to meet Powell as the new LGBT liaison, questions were raised about Harris’ role in the department from those in attendance and if she was still the LGBT liaison. Harris told the GA Voice at that time she was unaware of the meeting to introduce the new LGBT liaison and would have attended had she known.
“I didn’t know about the meeting and I want to say I was never relieved from work medically because my doctor said I can work, but APD is not allowing me to return to work and it is not medical,” Harris said in May 2010.
She had said publicly she was on medical leave for gran mal seizures, but explained that she legally cannot drive because of the seizures she’s had in the past.
“I have a medical condition but it does not prevent me from doing my duties except driving,” Harris said four years ago. “I am trying to go back to work but they won’t let me.”
Harris said at the time that then-Major Erika Shields (now a deputy chief), chief of staff to the police chief, and the Personnel Department were not allowing her to return to work and in September 2010 accused the department of “blackballing” her from her job after putting her on administrative leave without pay.
“They continue to blackball me. If they are serious about being committed to the LGBT community they have to know I’ve been discriminated against. How can they expect the respect and support of the GLBT community and not protect their own in-house?” Harris told the GA Voice in September 2010.
The Personnel Department was under the supervision of Major Debra Williams. Williams was head of the Red Dog unit that raided the gay bar the Atlanta Eagle and was a defendant in the civil suit against the APD by patrons and employees of the bar. Those lawsuits resulted in several officers being fired and reprimanded and eventually a roughly $3 million payout from the city to plaintiffs and in attorneys fees. Williams retired before she could be demoted to lieutenant following an independent investigation into the unconstitutional raid on the Atlanta Eagle.
Harris at the time also said in September 2010 it was “heartbreaking” that she was not able to return to her job.
“It’s harassment,” she told the GA Voice. “I have my gun and badge but I’m still not allowed to return to work. I’ve never been a conspiracy theorist, but this definitely makes me wonder. This is all retaliation about the Eagle raid and the complaint I filed. This doesn’t make sense. I’m not sure what’s going on. It’s heartbreaking.”
Harris finally returned to work in October 2010 but not as an LGBT liaison. She was instead assigned to the ID division of the APD located on Donald Lee Howell Road and was in charge of expunging records from computers after court cases are resolved and orders to do so are handed down. APD Chief George Turner told the GA Voice at the time Harris was never promised she would get her job as LGBT liaison back.
Memo to mayor, police chief say replacing Harris as LGBT liaison ‘blatant violation of federal law’
A Sept. 3, 2010, memo sent to Mayor Reed and Chief Turner from Harris’ attorney, Cheryl B. Legare, seeking to find a way to return Harris to her job immediately, especially after the news that a new LGBT liaison had been hired.
“Time is of the essence because we are aware that Officer Harris has been replaced. We are also aware of your comments to the media the City now plans to hire two GLBT Liaisons in the Police Department. We have heard an unfortunate rumor that another Officer has been selected to replace Officer Harris. However, since that would be a blatant violation of federal law, we are certain that it is only a rumor,” states the memo.
Attached to the memo is a document from the Atlanta Department of Law, dated May 21, 2014, stating, “Claimant alleges bodily injuries sustained when Atlanta Police refused to allow her to return to work unless she was released to work without any restrictions. The investigation has determined the claimant will resolve the issues through litigation.”
Confusion in days following Eagle raid
Harris began working for the APD in June 2003 and became the LGBT liaison in 2005. She was the sole, full-time LGBT liaison for the APD at the time of the Eagle raid, but was not informed of the raid of the gay bar until after it happened when media called her for information. A press conference with Harris and former Chief Richard Pennington was held to try to ease the confusion and simmering anger from LGBT people and the general public as to what happened.
Harris also spoke out about the raid at at least one rally organized by activists angered by the raid.