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Former officer claims he was discriminated against when he was the only Black officer at the department

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Pompton Lakes Police officers visit Pompton Lakes High School High School in January. (Facebook)


Anthony G. Attrino
nj.com
(TNS)

A former police officer in Passaic County plans to sue the borough where he worked for $2.5 million, alleging he was forced to resign after years of harassment and retaliation due to racial discrimination and union activities.

William Pepe was only the Black police officer on the Pompton Lakes Police Department when he was hired in 2015, according to a notice of tort claim sent to the borough on Friday.

A former military veteran, Pepe was promoted to detective, assigned to the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office Narcotics Task Force, and served as firearms instructor for the department.

But his career trajectory came to a halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, when he was allegedly forced to take dozens of sick days in quarantine when his son was ill, even though the child did not test positive for the virus.

When Pepe stated during a union meeting that he intended to file a grievance over “forced sick days,” both police Chief Derek Clark and Lt. Anthony Rodriguez became “aggressive” and said they would fight the grievance, the notice states.

“Browbeaten and fearful of retaliation, (Pepe) decided not to file the grievance. Nevertheless, retaliation swiftly followed,” his attorney argued in the notice.

Pepe endured discrimination, a hostile work environment and retaliation for engaging in protected speech, participating in the union, and “objecting to the unlawful actions of his supervisors,” he claims in the legal notice.

The alleged harassment was so pervasive that Pepe felt he had no choice but to resign.

Borough Administrator Michael Carelli said in an email on Wednesday he had no comment on the allegations contained in the notice of claim. Clark did not return a call seeking comment.

A month after Pepe threatened to file a grievance, Clark removed Pepe from the detective bureau “as an act of retaliation” and assigned him to a patrol position, the claim alleges.

“It should be noted that New Jersey courts have held that laterally transferring an employee to a less desirable position can be considered a retaliatory adverse employment action, even if such a transfer does not impact the employee’s salary,” the claim states.

The claim states that between July and October 2021, Clark called Pepe into his office several times “to harangue him about the number of tickets he was writing in patrol.”

“At one point, Chief Clark threatened to put claimant on a performance improvement program because his ticket numbers were too low and because he was not meeting the ticket number (quota) he wanted, which is utterly illegal,” the notice states.

The claim states Clark’s ticket quota system was department wide, and that borough officials expected “greater revenue” from tickets than they were getting.

“Chief Clark also went so far as to reward officers who met his illegal, ticket-writing quota with permission to grow beards,” the claim states.

The claim states that Pepe was told if his numbers did not improve, the borough council may “mess with your healthcare” during contract negotiations.

“As the only African American officer in the department, claimant began to feel the subtle sting of invidious discrimination at work,” the claim states.

“To claimant’s knowledge, no white officers had ever been required to prove themselves (or) penalized for failing to meet the blatantly illegal ticket quota,” the claim states.

In August 2022, Pepe claims the chief suspended him for not attending the local “National Night Out” community event, even though his attendance was not mandatory, and Pepe had taken the day off.

The notice further states Pepe was placed on administrative leave and sent for a fitness-for-duty examination after arguing with a family member on a cellphone.

“Chief Clark and Lt. Rodriguez told claimant that he needed ‘help’ and sent claimant for a fitness for duty test within the Institute for Forensic Psychology,” in Oakland, the notice states.

A doctor at the institute found Pepe “unfit for duty” diagnosed him with PTSD, and sent him for inpatient treatment, the notice states.

During his treatment, Pepe applied for a job-protected leave of absence and worker’s compensation because “the mental health problems he was experiencing stemmed from his workplace,” according to the notice.

While waiting for his worker’s compensation application to be approved, Pepe used his remaining sick time and other officers donated sick days to him so he would not lose any pay.

Rodriguez, however, informed Pepe that the borough could fire him if he remained out of work, even though he had not been cleared by doctors to return to his job, alleges the notice.

In September 2023, Pepe had surgery for a medical condition. His doctor advised the borough Pepe could return to light duty in October 2023 and full duty on Jan. 1.

While still recovering from surgery, Pepe was served with a notice stating he was the target of five separate internal affairs investigations included having tattoos on his neck and hands, removing his body-worn camera from his vest during an arrest and failing to tag body camera videos.

Attorney Gina Mendola Longarzo, who filed the notice of claim, told NJ Advance Media on Wednesday the investigations were fabricated.

“They brought him up on tattoos he had when he was hired. It was so blatant,” Mendola Longarzo said. “They were just looking for a reason to charge him.”

The notice states the chief and lieutenant were “conspicuously employing the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ strategy” to remove Pepe from his job.

The claim states Pepe was harassed, retaliated against, and punished to the point where it resulted in his “constructive termination” in January.

“At that point, claimant felt that his working conditions were so intolerable that a reasonable person would be forced to resign rather than endure it,” the notice states.

“The race and disability discrimination and harassment were so severe, and the ongoing retaliation was so intense, that he had no option but to quit,” the notice states.

The notice states that after Pepe resigned, Clark and Rodriguez prohibited other police officers from communicating with him.

“They went so far as to view officers’ text messages to see whether they had texted with claimant – even though Chief Clark cannot reasonably prohibit an employee from speaking to a former department officer,” the notice of claim states.

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Anthony G. Attrino may be reached at tattrino@njadvancemedia.com. Follow him on X @TonyAttrino. Find NJ.com on Facebook.

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