By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
Two black residents of East St. Louis won a civil-rights lawsuit last week in southern Illinois, complaining that they were harassed and discriminated against when they recommended that the predominately black city hire a white police chief and white police officers.
Wyatt Frazer and Della Murphy were serving on the city's Board of Fire and Police Commissioners in the fall of 2007 when they were unceremoniously fired shortly after going to bat for a white patrol officer they wanted to hire over the objections of East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks and City Manager Robert Betts.
Tom Kennedy, the attorney representing Frazer and Murphy, tells Daily RFT that Parks and Betts harassed the white candidate during a job interview, encouraging him to look for work elsewhere and asking why he was racist.
A similar situation occurred months earlier when the commission recommended hiring a decorated officer — who also happened to be white — as the city's top cop. In court, Frazer testified that Parks told him that "East St. Louis wasn't ready to hire a white police chief."
Eventually, on October 17, 2007, Parks and Robert Betts, in coordination with the city council, voted to dissolve the three-person fire and police commission on which Frazer and Murphy served. The city then re-formed the commission that very same day, extending invites only to the third board member. That member had attended just two meetings in 22 months before the commission was dissolved, according to attorney Kennedy.
"It's just horse manure," Kennedy tells Daily RFT. "The action of the city toward my clients was disgusting. These are two people who've lived in East St. Louis for decades and were trying to improve their community. This is a blatant case of reverse discrimination on the part of the city. And my clients paid the price standing up against it."
Following a two-and-a-half-day trial that wrapped up last Wednesday in federal court in Benton, Illinois, jurors found that Parks, Betts and the city conspired to violate Frazer and Murphy's civil rights by targeting them for their advocacy of the white officers. (Jurors sided with the city on another count that specifically claimed city officials retaliated against Frazer and Murphy for exercising their First Amendment rights.)
In the end, jurors awarded Frazer and Murphy $5,500 each in compensatory damages and $15,000 each in punitive damages.
Kennedy notes that the punitive damages exceeded the $10,000 his clients requested.
"This was never about money," says Kennedy. "It was about restoring the names of Wyatt Frazer and Della Murphy. They're thrilled with the verdict and couldn't be happier."
Michael Baxton Jr., the police chief hired over Frazer and Murphy's recommendation, has since resigned. Kennedy tells Daily RFT that his clients wanted the city to hire Ron Grimming, an East St. Louis native whose father once owned a grocery store in town. Grimming went on to ascend the ranks of the Illinois State Police before being hired to lead the Florida Highway Patrol.
"He was willing to come out of retirement because he wanted to help his hometown," says Kennedy.