January 13, 2014 9:36:42 AM
A year after a police officer filed a discrimination lawsuit against the City of Columbus, the case is one step closer to going to trial.
Officer Greg Harstad filed a federal lawsuit in Aberdeen against the city of Columbus last January, alleging that he was denied the position of Chief of Police based on race. Harstad, who is white, alleges Chief Selvain McQueen was appointed into the position because he is black. The lawsuit was filed in January 2013.
In December the city filed for a summary judgment from a judge, claiming the case had no merit. A summary judgment allows a judge to decide on a case based on undisputed fact without a full trial.
The complaint, filed by Harstad's attorney Shane McLaughlin of Tupelo, alleges that the city lowered its original job qualifications to specifically cater to McQueen. When the criteria for the chief's position was posted in July 2011, the required qualifications included a requirement that the candidates must possess a four-year degree. McQueen, who had applied for the job, did not have a four-year degree. The city council amended the job requirements and removed the language requiring a four-year degree.
The lawsuit reads, "The reason the City lowered the requirements for the position of chief of police was to achieve its goal of hiring an African American into the position. The City reduced its requirements so as to hire a lesser-qualified black candidate for the job, rather than hiring Plaintiff (Harstad). Plaintiff was more qualified than most other applicants for the position, and far more qualified than the applicant eventually selected, but he was not considered for the position of chief of police. The reason Plaintiff was not considered or interviewed for the position was his race."
City attorney Jeff Turnage disagrees with the claim, saying, "The law is, if you are an unsuccessful applicant suing for discrimination, you have to show that you were better qualified than the person who got the job. Our advertisement said that the person had to have 10 years of law enforcement experience and experience in a supervisory role in the police department. Officer Harstad did not have 10 years in law enforcement experience or any supervisory experience in law enforcement as a basic patrolman."
At the time of the search Harstad, who is a retired lieutenant colonel from the United States Air Force, claimed his 26 years in the Air Force should have been considered.
McLaughlin said he would file a response to the city's request for a summary judgment soon.
"We expect to file the response in a week to 10 days," he said. "We think officer Harstad has got a very solid case. We are going to vigorously respond to the motion for summary judgment."
The case, which was scheduled for July 28, will likely be continued due to a change in the judge presiding over the case, McLaughlin said.
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.
1. Convictions for police officer defendants rare COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
2. New Columbus Arts Council director looks for more long-term donations COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
3. The Book of Joe: LINK CEO Higgins enlists ghostwriter to work on book project COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
4. Police identify armed robbery suspect COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY
5. Officials respond to voting concerns at Union precinct COLUMBUS & LOWNDES COUNTY