Update: Butte County Man Sues Chico Police Over Racial Discrimination Allegations
A Butte County man is suing the Chico Police Department over allegations he was denied work – in part – because of his race.
Donell Thomas, a 35-year-old black man, alleges police leadership unlawfully used his expunged criminal history to ban him from working with the department.
Court documents filed Feb. 19 say Thomas began working as a peer advocate for Butte County Behavioral Health in February 2020. The job’s duties include helping law enforcement in encounters with people suffering from mental illness.
Thomas alleges in the lawsuit that a police commander blocked himfrom working with Chico police because of his past, which included multiple misdemeanor convictions stemming from his teens to late 20s.
Thomas’ attorney, Larry Baumbach, says a judge dismissed those convictions in 2019. Baumbach says he believes Thomas faced discrimination because of his race.
“Instead of giving him a hand up, the Chico Police Department threw him an anchor and told him to go away because they didn’t like his background,” Baumbach said. “I find that appallingly narrow-minded and unlawful.”
The lawsuit alleges Thomas’ rights were violated by depriving him his “right to enjoyment of all benefits, privileges, terms and conditions of Plaintiff’s (Thomas’) employment contract ‘as is enjoyed by white citizens’ in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.”
Thomas’ lawsuit claims the police commander, Michael Rodden, who’s named as a defendant, “was aware that Plaintiff (Thomas) had engaged in various of (sic) acts of criminal malfeasances, and Defendant Rodden harbored a hostility and a discriminatory attitude about Plaintiff, in substantial part because Plaintiff is African American.”
The city of Chico did not comment on the allegations, with a spokesperson saying the city doesn’t comment on pending litigation.
Butte County Superior Court records show Thomas was convicted of several misdemeanors between 2003-2012, including weapons violations, driving under the influence of alcohol, providing false information to an officer, resisting or obstructing a peace officer, and battery.
In 2019, Thomas successfully petitioned the court to expunge his criminal record. In a letter to a judge, Thomas described a tough childhood in which his father was absent, and his mother became addicted to drugs. That’s when, he says, he began having problems with the law.
“My troubled childhood carried on into my adult life,” Thomas wrote. “Being arrested many of times for different things. This went on most of my adult life until I woke up one day and said I’m going to be a better person for myself and for my kids.”
He wrote that in the five years leading up to his letter, his life had been changing for the better. He told the court he worked for Butte County In-Home Supportive Services and was a security guard for a health insurance company.
Following the 2018 Camp Fire, Thomas said he volunteered helping feed and clothe displaced residents outside the Walmart in Chico.
“Was there as support, a shoulder to cry on, or an ear to listen to when they spoke what’s on their mind,” he wrote. “Though I was not personally effected (sic) by the fire I felt that god told me to get out and help and what was a one day trip to hand out pizza turned into a several month long mission.”
Thomas asked the court to help put his criminal past behind him.
On Dec. 3, 2019, Superior Court Judge Jesus Rodriguez granted Thomas’ request, dismissing his misdemeanor convictions, according to court documents.
Thomas’ lawsuit against Chico police alleges that Rodden, the police commander, knew the criminal cases against Thomas had been dismissed, but “nevertheless, in a direct act of racial bias described and identified the Plaintiff as a career criminal and ordered the department not to allow Plaintiff to work in Butte County as a peer advocate on behalf of the Chico Police Department.”
In March 2020, Thomas filed a complaint with the department, according to the lawsuit.
Then-Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien responded to the complaint last April, saying the department conducted an inquiry and found Rodden was acting in good faith and within the guidelines of the Memorandum of Understanding between Butte County Behavioral Health and the Police Department.
“Specifically, Commander Rodden found your past criminal history, albeit expunged by Butte County Superior Court, was not conducive to a working relationship or acceptable for admittance into the Chico Police Department facility,” O’Brien wrote in a letter dated April 8, 2020, and included as an exhibit in Thomas’ lawsuit. “No actions were found to violate law, City of Chico or Chico Police Department policies or procedures nor were they found to be a result of your race.”
O’Brien closed the case.
Baumbach, Thomas’ attorney, says the Chico Police Department was the only law enforcement agency in Butte County that barred Thomas.
“He worked at Oroville PD,” Baumbach says. “He worked with the Sheriff’s Department, and, as you know, a peer advocacy program using behavioral health-trained people is really what we’re seeking when we have incidents involving the mentally ill, because police officers aren’t necessarily trained in how to deal with them. And those things often end badly, as we’ve seen in the news lately.”
Major demonstrations protesting police violence and racial injustice gripped the country in the spring and summer of last year. In Chico, after the May 25 killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, protesters took to the street.
On the evening of June 2, 2020, at Chico City Plaza, according to Thomas’ lawsuit, Thomas believed he had to de-escalate tensions between demonstrators and police.
The lawsuit states: “A confrontation between numerous citizens who had gathered to protest the police killings of African Americans became a somewhat threatening mob that threatened the safety of the officers who were present at the rally.”
“As a result, Plaintiff placed himself between the police officers and the protestors (sic) and convinced the protestors to back off of their intentions and their threats and amicably resolved any hostilities in the name of peaceful protest and demonstration.”
The Chico Police Department issued Thomas a “Certificate of Appreciation” following the episode, according to court documents.
The certificate – which was signed by then-interim Chico Police Chief Matt Madden – recognized Thomas’ “diligent, honorable and valued efforts to help maintain a peaceful atmosphere during local demonstrations in our city.”
Thomas alleges the department continued to exclude him from working with Chico police after the certificate was issued.
Baumbach says he believes Thomas’ case is a “classic form of discrimination.”
“When a Black man tries to improve his lot in life and improves himself to a certain degree, he may get out ahead of his skis a little bit, and there’s somebody always available – usually, almost always a white person – to knock him down and tell him, ‘Not so fast. Don’t come in here. You’re not allowed,’” Baumbach said. “And that’s what happened to him. And it was a racial discrimination. If it wasn’t, I would be amazed.”