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The Atlanta Journal - Constitution

Racism Alleged By Fired Lilburn Cop


20 May 2005
Copyright © 2005 The Atlanta Journal - Constitution. All rights reserved.

Jorge Portalatin's last performance review at the Lilburn Police Department called him a "team player" and "excellent supervisor" who "bridges the gap between police and the Hispanic community." That was last summer.

In September, Sgt. Portalatin and his lawyer confronted the police chief about what Portalatin called a racially insensitive atmosphere at the largely white department. By December, when Portalatin filed a racial discrimination complaint with the federal government, the Puerto Rico native was the subject of three separate internal investigations. In March, the police chief fired Portalatin, a five-year veteran and the city's only Latino police officer at the time.

Was it retaliation?

Or is this the case of a cop whose pattern of overly aggressive behavior made him a liability?

Portalatin and the chief, Public Safety Director Ronald Houck, each laid out his case during a daylong appeals hearing before the city's Merit Board last month. The two men declined to be interviewed for this article, each citing expected litigation over the dispute.

Tide turned in fall

Portalatin, 34, told the Merit Board the tide turned against him after a September meeting with Houck. The sergeant raised questions about the racial attitudes of some of his fellow officers at the meeting, which was also attended by his wife and his attorney.

Portalatin said he was disappointed with Houck's decision to suspend and not fire an officer who used a racial slur when talking to a black McDonald's employee. The officer had already established a pattern of racially insensitive remarks, Portalatin said. Portalatin also urged the chief to probe a white officer's complaint about possible racial profiling by three members of the force.

Later, Portalatin cited other incidents. He said an officer accused him of siding with a bribery suspect because the suspect was Hispanic. In another case, Portalatin said an officer, after seeing a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle in the living room of a Hispanic household, said it must have been stolen. Portalatin took it as an insinuation that all Mexicans are thieves.

"I brought some issues concerning discriminatory practices and the racial tension . . . ," Portalatin told the board. "And I absolutely agree that [Houck] has retaliated against me."

Houck, who has been chief for 28 years, countered that Portalatin had established a pattern of rude and unprofessional behavior. Portalatin racked up 19 complaints from suspects, the public and fellow officers during his five-year tenure. Portalatin was cleared in most of those cases. But Houck focused on three recent charges in which Portalatin was found at fault.

Portalatin's firing comes as Lilburn continues to attract more African-Americans and immigrants from Asia and Latin America. Lilburn's population changed from 93 percent white in 1990 to 75 percent white in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Roughly 13 percent of the city's 11,300 residents identified themselves as Hispanic in the last census, while 12 percent said they were black.

Of the 27 sworn police officers, 24 are white, two are black and one, hired after Portalatin was fired, is Hispanic.

Three key incidents

The timing of Portalatin's firing --- three months after he filed a formal complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission --- troubles the Rev. John Stewart Jr., president of the Gwinnett branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "It's interesting, and it's highly unusual, that so much activity would occur after the EEOC complaint is filed," Stewart said. "We're following this case very closely."

The three incidents that fueled Portalatin's firing came in the fall. He was reprimanded for bad language after bank employees said he told them he had to "haul ass" in response to a false alarm in October. A fellow officer accused him of grabbing a handcuffed suspect by the hair and shoving a flashlight into the suspect's chin.

And in December, another officer reported that Portalatin cursed and threatened a man he thought was robbing a Boston Market. The man turned out to be making a late-night delivery.

"I think we were clearly put on notice that . . . had something happened or could happen in the future, we would be responsible," Houck said.

Portalatin said all three incidents were twisted to pave the way for his firing. At Boston Market, for example, Portalatin said he didn't threaten the delivery man, but rather warned him not to behave erratically in the future because he risked being shot.

Portalatin isn't the only one saying the accusations were blown out of proportion. A high-ranking lieutenant in the department backs him up.

Lt. Rob Worley, who is white and an 11-year veteran of the force, said Portalatin's firing doesn't square with his track record. Portalatin received glowing reviews, was promoted to sergeant at the age of 30 and won awards for volunteerism, customer service and officer of the year, Worley pointed out.

"Now, all of a sudden, Sergeant Portalatin is considered a rogue, out-of-control officer," Worley said. "The only thing he did wrong was to speak out about discriminatory practices."

Richard Carothers, the city's attorney, said Worley merely wanted to protect a buddy. And he asked Worley if his real intention was to bring down Houck in order to become police chief, a charge Worley denied.

Carothers also cited an investigation ordered by the city in response to EEOC complaints from Portalatin and a female officer who is black. City officials hired David Archer, attorney for the city of Cartersville, to investigate. He found no evidence of racial discrimination.

Council upholds firing

After listening to both sides, the city Merit Board upheld a five-day suspension for the Boston Market incident, but not Portalatin's firing. The board said Portalatin should be reinstated, but at a lower rank and pay.

Both the chief and Portalatin appealed that decision to the Lilburn City Council.

Three weeks ago, the council voted 3-1 to uphold the chief's decision.

Councilman Scott Batterton, who voted for the dismissal, conceded there's a problem with the department's annual evaluations because they never reflected the growing list of complaints against Portalatin. But any officer with that many complaints has to go, no matter what his reviews say, Batterton said.

"Chief Houck is firm, but he's fair," said Batterton, who has known the chief for 25 years. "And I can tell you when it comes to his officers, he's colorblind."

Diana Preston, the only council member to vote against firing Portalatin, declined to comment, citing the expected lawsuit.

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