Though an eight-person federal jury unanimously awarded former Medina Police Chief Jeffrey Chen $2 million for discrimination claims against the city of Medina at the end of March, the city’s request for an appeal in April will delay any of the $237,000 in back pay, $1.65 million in pay for present and future employment loss and $100,000 in emotional damages.
Chen, who filed four discrimination claims in 2011 that were eventually heard by a jury — three federal and one state lawsuit — has incurred a massive amount of legal fees to build a strong case that his termination by Medina City Manager Donna Hanson in April 2011 was racially motivated.
“It’s been unfair that my family has suffered unwarranted publicity,” said Chen, who is raising four children. “Financially, it’s drained me of every resource I have. My children have gone without, and it’s unfair.”
Chen awaits a post-trial decision from U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly, who served during his federal trial, in response to the Medina City Council’s motion. Though he is free from all the false claims made against him, the controversy has damaged Chen’s ability to secure any employment in law enforcement or otherwise. Chen said he’s even offered to work for half the salary of the positions he has interviewed for and applied for jobs that are near minimum wage.
“[The process] is still very, very draining because the judge has not allowed any of this money to come his way,” said Marianne Jones, Chen’s attorney. “So here he has this $2 million judgment, and the judge has stopped all collection of that until the judge decides the post-trial motions.”
Furthermore, “the judge could stop all collection from any appeal that they take. And the appeals [could] continue on for many years,” Jones explained.
In the meantime, the high-stakes, high-visibility trial has uncovered a malicious and strategic effort of a few Medina city government officials to keep Medina leadership white in a city where more than 11 percent of the population is Asian and Pacific Islander, and where Chen served as the only person of color overseeing a city department.
Since Chen won the case, Jones said she’s received at least 15 calls from others who said they have experienced similar discrimination in public administration offices throughout King County.
“Our society here, especially in Seattle where it’s such a diverse area, we sometimes believed that this couldn’t have happened — that discrimination doesn’t happen anymore, that people are more educated and cultured,” said Chen. “And I sit here telling you it does happen. It’s happened to me. It was overt, it was not-so-overt. It was under the layer or under the skin, so to speak, but it can’t go unchecked. You have to stand up for yourself and speak out.”
Chen’s termination began with a city investigation Hanson conducted in 2010 on the false pretense that Chen was using an email password he was not given permission to use to access city email archives.
By then, Chen had already complained in writing about colleagues and city officials making derogatory remarks about his race and asked something to be done about it. This included comments Hanson directed at Chen publicly such as “ I thought Chinese people were more patient than this” and “Do you people celebrate Thanksgiving?” — evidence that refuted the city attorneys’ argument that Chen had never complained of racism prior to his termination and that he was just “pulling the race card” for a big payout, said Jones.
“Internally, within the culture, I was told, ‘You can never trust a smiling Chinaman, Jeff Chen is a regular Charlie Chan.’ I mean, those type of comments aren’t appropriate in the workplace, and those were the comments I was subjected to,” said Chen.
Chen, a Seattle native who is nationally recognized for his work, holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Washington’s Daniel J. Evans School and has undergone advanced and rigorous Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Academy training. He was originally hired by the Medina Police Department in 2001 to get the department accredited for best practices in law enforcement.
“We had a race expert come and testify that I was the model minority brought in to do the dirty work, so to speak, to get the police department accredited” and then gotten rid of, Chen said.
Chen served as Medina’s police chief under five different city managers over a period of 27 months, a reflection of the political instability that typified his work environment, he said.
Even so: “At the time I worked very, very well with the previous four bosses I had,” said Chen. “To this day, I still believe that Ms. Hanson came in with a bias against me from day one. And it ultimately came at a time when she knew she couldn’t touch me. In her testimony… she said, ‘I knew that if I ever tried to come out against Jeff Chen that I would be fired.’ So she sought out a way to build a fictitious case against me. … She was actually going to be fired just before she turned the tables on me.”
By the end of 2010, Hanson had put Chen on administrative leave, and in that time, began gathering evidence against him, which resulted in his firing on April 27, 2011 for alleged instances of dishonesty, abuse of power and improper access to city resources. In court, “the jury found every single reason [for firing Chen] bogus,” said Jones.
One reason for firing Chen that the city brought to trial: “They tried to claim that under his tutelage, the department became unaccredited,” said Jones. “Well that’s not what happened. The accreditation system went offline for three years, and there was nobody who was accredited during that time because there was not a process for it.”
After a two-yearlong battle to defend his name, Chen is grateful for all the residents of Medina who stood up for him at public hearings early on and for the more than 400 Medina and Hunts Point residents who signed a petition in 2011 demanding Medina City Council to reinstate Chen as police chief and fire city manager Donna Hanson.
“If the [city council] had fired [Hanson] instantly so there would have been an opportunity for him to come back, he could have even come back in a different role. But they didn’t choose to do that,” said Jones.
Though he still cares about the residents of Medina, Chen said he can’t return to the same discriminatory culture that was exposed in his trial. He and Jones hope that new leadership on Medina’s city council will eventually help offset its racist culture. In a small city like Medina with a population of just about 3,000, it doesn’t take much to get voted onto the Medina City Council — a center of power where council members are also charged with voting in Medina’s mayor.
For now the city’s future — as well as that of Chen’s — is uncertain, but there’s one thing that Chen can say he’s certain about. When he is 80 years old, he won’t have any regrets that he didn’t stand up and fight for himself.
“I believe in that every single day of my life and instill it to my children,“ said Chen.